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Rilling advises deep thought on Adamowski’s ask for NPS budget hike

Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton, right, speaks to Common Council members, Thursday in City Hall.

NORWALK, Conn. — Both sides need to do some soul searching when it comes to the Norwalk Board of Education’s budget request, Mayor Harry Rilling said Thursday.

“I know and I recognize, as I know all of you do, the importance of putting together a budget that is not going to tax the people out of the city of Norwalk,” Rilling said to the Common Council Finance Committee, in a joint Council/Board of Education Finance Committee meeting focused on the budget request.

Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski is advocating a $14.3 million increase in the Norwalk Public Schools operating budget, a 7 percent hike, after years of NPS budget hikes.

“Both sides need to do some soul searching and determine all the things that are absolutely essential and all the things that perhaps could wait or be put on hold,” Rilling said.

 

The recommended budget

Enrollment is expected to jump by 406 students, Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton said. If you multiply that by the per pupil direct cost of $8,193, you’ll see that NPS needs an additional $3.3 million, according to the Board.

Council member Tom Livingston (D-District E) pushed back on that, asking about children being added to existing classrooms. Hamilton explained the concept of student-based budgeting – the money follows the child – and BoE Finance Committee Chairwoman Barbara Meyer-Mitchell said there are contractual caps to class sizes.

The projection comes from Milone & MacBroom, Hamilton said.

The Council sets a cap in February and, “Once we set that cap, we can’t go back so I really hope that that that Milone study as accurate as possible, because I found that my experiences that sometimes those facts aren’t,” Council member John Kydes (D-District C) said.

The major NPS budget driver is $5.6 million in contractual obligations to employees; of that $2.3 million goes to Norwalk Federation of Teachers members and $2.6 million to benefits for all collective bargaining groups.

“By paying employees correctly, we gain stability in our system that serves our students and taxpayers well,” NFT First Vice President Joe Giandurco said at the outset of the discussion. “It’s important that teachers continue to participate in our community by living locally, to the extent possible, and taking part not just in our school activities but in the work of our city.”

Adamowski, who was not present, also seeks $1.85 million to expand the English Language Learner (ELL) program in response to an unexpected influx of ELL students, a one year jump of 300.

“We certainly want to do the right thing. We want to educate all our children, but we also have some laws, federal requirements in this area that we have to be aware of and have to make sure that we are complying with,” Hamilton said.

“Helene Becker, who has this department, has literally written the book on how to do this,” Meyer-Mitchell said. “Norwalk is leading the state and possibly the country in this area, and the recommendations are from her department. This is a three-year phase-in so we are not asking for everything that we legally need.”

The budget covers the students currently enrolled in NPS and possible “normal fluctuations,” not another surprise 300 students next summer, Hamilton said, in response to questions from Council Finance Committee Chairman Greg Burnett (D-At Large).

Council President Barbara Smyth (D-At Large) asked if anyone was seeking federal funding to help with the situation.

“There has been some outreach. I know that Barbara (Meyer-Mitchell) has been spearheading this or working on this, to our congressional delegation,” Hamilton said, commenting that funding is possible but, “I don’t think we can count on that sort of being the savior.”

Meyer-Mitchell suggested a joint Council-BoE statement and a legislative breakfast but “we can… hope that it pays off, but we can’t count on it.”

The projected 406 enrollment increase includes this year’s 300 ELL students, NPS Budget Coordinator Kristen Karzcmit said. However, Hamilton noted that last year’s Milone & MacBroom projection fell short because of the influx.

Another requested expenditure over and above last year’s cost is $337,000 to transition before- and after-school programs to the Carver Center.

“Carver can partner with other federal programs or maybe other grant donors to help fund and provide robust after-school learning for our students,” Karzcmit said.

“One of the things we heard from our stakeholders was with the high cost of living in Norwalk we have families who are working two and three jobs and their childcare is a serious concern, especially as it relates to the Healthy Start Time change,” Meyer-Mitchell said. “We also have a large number of single parent households. So we need to be respectful that we’re providing an efficient, effective poverty enrichment program so that our parents can be at work and be able to pay their taxes,” Meyer-Mitchell said.

Then there’s $165,000 for American Sign Language.

“This has also become a new major at ‘UConn’ and it’s very desirable for our dyslexia population. One in five students has dyslexia,” Meyer-Mitchell said.

 

‘A small ask’

Adamowski’s recommended budget is $3 million less than requested by the various NPS departments, Meyer-Mitchell and Hamilton noted.

Although $14 million “sounds like a huge number,” all but $3.5 million of it is due to contractual and legal obligations and increasing enrollment, BoE member Colin Hosten said, calling it “actually a really small ask.”

Rilling spoke at the beginning of the meeting.

“This is a very ambitious budget put together by the Board of Education, certainly a bit of a surprise, compared to what we were told last year would be this year,” Rilling said. “But we also recognize that things have changed and there are some greater challenges.”

Rilling said he’d asked City-side department heads to “come in flat,” to only seek to cover contractual mandates, something he also said during last year’s budget cycle.

“We read all too often about people leaving the state of Connecticut, we read all too often about the regressive tax that a property tax is, it’s income and profit blind,” Rilling said. “Your property taxes are due whether or not you have a job, or whether or not your business is making a profit. So we have to be very cautious because, quite frankly, people are leaving the state of Connecticut but fortunately, people are moving into Norwalk. And we want to keep it that way.”

Yes, “Norwalk has the largest Rainy Day Fund in the state of Connecticut,” but, “that’s not a bad thing because a lot of people are talking about the potential for a recession,” he said. “.… So, raiding the Rainy Day Fund is not the best option.”

He concluded, “Let’s do some soul searching put together a budget that’s not only fair and gives us a world class education, but a budget that’s fair for the taxpayers of the city of Norwalk.”

10 comments

Sue Haynie January 10, 2020 at 6:17 am

It’s a huge ask and it doesn’t budget for a repeat of this year: “The budget covers the students currently enrolled in NPS and possible “normal fluctuations,” not another surprise 300 students next summer, Hamilton said, in response to questions from Council Finance Committee Chairman Greg Burnett (D-At Large).”

Property values have decreased by 10% to 20% for large swatches of Norwalk homeowners.The school system, no matter how hard we try, is not a net positive for property values. Property taxes are already onerous and the SALT cap adds a liability to any home w/taxes over $10,000.

FYI, both my two dyslexic kids took foreign languages as required and passed. Maybe now is not the time to add ASL to our plate.

Yes Common Council, please think long and hard on this. This is unsustainable.

Alexis January 10, 2020 at 6:47 am

What’s in the $3 million of department requests that’s been cut out of this plan?

Is half a million for later school times really necessary during a time of increasing contractual and enrollment growth costs, or is it too late since the board already approved?

“Currently, virtually seven out of 10 students attending our schools are from low income families, are English Language Learners or have special learning needs,” Adamowski said.  “Many are in two or three high needs categories and require additional support to receive an adequate education.”.. how does NPS measure the results of it’s world class education?

The mayor says, “quite frankly, people are leaving the state of Connecticut but fortunately, people are moving into Norwalk. And we want to keep it that way.”

Are we sure Norwalk wants to keep paying for more ELL and enrollment growth, or would it be prudent to hope other communities share an equitable piece of the puzzle. If the influx or enrollment growth stabilized, maybe NPS could maintain focus on the existing 70% of disadvantaged students in need of additional support for an adequate education.

Godspeed to the teachers!

John ONeill January 10, 2020 at 10:53 am

IF anyone doesn’t think our schools are hitting a tipping point and are in crisis they should be committed. Colin Hosten calls this a “small ask”. This coming from the guy who was appointed by DTC to board. Either he thinks we’re stupid, or he misspoke. I realize I sound like a broken record, but our elected leaders have not been forthright with public on ELL crisis and it’s implications to our schools and our city’s finances. It’s a little alarming to know they have masked the problem for years (just like state pensions) and can’t hide the issue any longer. I call on our Mayor, State Senator and Reps to do something to resolve so it doesn’t become a complete disaster. STEP UP OR STEP OUT.
I’d like to hear from teachers on current teaching conditions. The band aid approach being used right now to fund ELL programs right now is obviously untenable. Everyone at city hall knows it, but they seem to be ambivalent. At least they have for last 10 years while ELL student population has more than doubled. It’s a disgrace now, and will be a disaster for Norwalk without state legislative action. Note to Colin Hosten: $14 Million dollars is not small potatoes. At least it’s not when it’s your own money.

Another Opinion January 10, 2020 at 12:33 pm

We’ve all known for quite sometime that the city is shortchanged in school funding but continuing to sock it to the taxpayer will all but seal the city’s fate and accelerate a cycle where buyers look elsewhere fueling a grand list collapse – this would all but cause irreversible damage to the progress that the schools have made. A balance is needed here along with budgetary restraint. The 7% increase is not commensurate with home value appreciation, grand list growth or household budgets. In the midst of expectations that 2020 would be the year of containment, this should raise alarms. . . accommodating this increase is a dice roll to say the least.

Kathleen Marsh January 10, 2020 at 12:57 pm

So with the high cost of living here in Norwalk, why the huge influx of low income families, where are they living.?

David Mapley January 10, 2020 at 8:09 pm

The real issue here is that Hartford shortchanges us, and with poor State representation we get only 9cents back from every dollar sent to Hartford in State and Sales Tax. Our ECS funding is a pittance (Thank you Bod Duff..). And I don’t know a country in the world that pays migrant kids to learn English, please…. They all have nice expensive phones from a recent survey, with lots of data! ELL is just a laugh, at our expense!!!

John Miller January 11, 2020 at 4:13 pm

$14 million is a “small ask” according to Mr. Hosten, Mr. Hamilton, and Ms. Meyer-Mitchell? Really!!! They must think that the citizen/taxpayers of Norwalk are economic morons who will simply buy into this massive, unjustified money grab without objection. Other than the $5.6 million in legally binding contractual obligations to employees and the obsene cost of the ELL program which we evidently don’t have much control over, the remainder of this proposal should be rejected. It is simply unsustainable and, given their track record to date,looking to our elected State and Federal officials for help is a pipe dream.

Norwalk Lost January 13, 2020 at 9:17 am

Let the dominoes fall – sustainability of city budgets is sacrosanct to rating agencies and let the Bridgeport glide-path begin. Year after year, Norwalk and its political delegation have failed to secure adequate funding to support an asylum sanctuary in its schools – a policy they advocated, promoted and funded by forwarding residents a lofty bill in the form of material tax hikes amidst stagnating to lower home prices . The sad fact is that most city taxpayers, had they known, would have looked elsewhere.

John ONeill January 13, 2020 at 4:39 pm

@Norwalk Lost / John Miller — Every voter needs to understand how our politicians have let Norwalk down on funding for ELL programs over past 10 years. This lack of funding borders on negligence. Some politicians may be counting on an easy victory in November. They may be surprised. The funny thing is the way Connecticut pensions work, they’ll be able to take full time position in Hartford and draw a larger pension. If you really want to get sick, see the attached.

http://www.courant.com/politics/government-watch/hc-pol-lender-appointees-pensions-20190927-q2v2ljd4urcd3miu6xm26o7pve-story.html

MarjorieM January 13, 2020 at 8:43 pm

(1). Central office is not only top heavy with administrators, but is top heavy with their salaries. Please tell us what the cost of Central Office is including non-administrators. There are so many people walking around up there on the third floor! Let’s compare the number of administrators from 7 years ago to now. Nancy, please show the numbers of administrators and non-administrators from 7 years ago to the present time.
(2) Other cities are getting ELL students. Are they increasing their budgets this much?
(3) remember the parents who warned that Adamowski would bankrupt the city? Who else in CT has budget increases of 5%-7% yearly? Is their prediction true? We were warned about Adamowski.

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