NORWALK, Conn. — Common Council members have advanced a recommended budget cap that would provide Norwalk Public Schools more money than was first proposed.
The Council Finance Committee voted 4-0-3 Thursday evening to recommend a $414.1 million budget cap, as opposed to the $412.4 million budget proposed by Mayor Harry Rilling and Norwalk Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz on Feb. 7, after a lengthy public hearing dominated by parents upset by recent developments and tired of the perennial budget battle.
The new budget cap would provide NPS with a 4.5% increase, the amount Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella and NPS Chief Financial Officer Lunda Asmani say is necessary just to meet contractual obligations to staff. It would be a nearly $9.4 million hike for the Board of Education.
“Just within the past couple of days, we’ve revised some numbers… working with our CFO, working with my team, and working with other members of the Council,” Rilling said. “I looked at the numbers again, and my recommended budget … would be a 4.5% increase for the Board of Education, a 3.75% increase on the city side.”
Rilling said he’d met with Estrella on Wednesday and discussed the budget cap with her, and promised to meet with her regularly “as we have done in the past,” so they can “analyze and evaluate the budget situation at any given time.”
The budget cap also allows for an additional full-time Recreation and Parks employee who would look after fields, and be able to work as needed via overtime, Rilling said.
Overall, it would be $16 million more than the 2021-22 budget, a 4.14% increase. This includes a plan to draw down $4 million from the “Rainy Day Fund,” or unassigned general fund balance.
The full Council will vote on this Tuesday.
Proposed tax increase
Dachowitz mentioned a “net grand list of $14.9 billion.” The City has yet to submit its 2021 grand list to the State although the deadline is Jan. 31; according to Tax Assessor William Ford, the City got an extension to Feb 28.
The 2020 Grand List was $14,972,207,943, Norwalk Chief of Staff Laoise King said a year ago. Dachowitz’ spreadsheet showed it as $14,747,104,349 Thursday.
Dividing the $14.9 billion grand list (or 14,866,177,090 in the spreadsheet) by the tax levy, you get an average mill rate for the city of 24.683, Dachowitz said. That’s a .710 increase, or 2.96%, and the median homeowner in the fourth taxing district would see their tax bill go up $196.
The public hearing reflected an inflammatory comment made by Dachowitz last week, who said that given the test scores from Norwalk’s school children, NPS isn’t giving the City enough “return on investment.”
Dachowitz apologized for the remark after Rilling and the Common Council issued statements condemning him.
Ten people spoke “in person” Thursday – via Zoom – and Comptroller Chitsamay Lam read 43 emails into the record.
Beyond the Dachowitz blowback, parental commentary featured these themes:
- A 3.75% increase for the schools is not enough, especially after flat funding during a pandemic
- The budget process needs to change, it’s exhausting to do this every year
- Question: Why isn’t the grand list supporting education funding?
“With development on the rise throughout the city and real estate prices skyrocketing. I find it hard to believe that the city is unable to fully fund our schools,” Jennifer Jefferies said in an email read by Lam.
Laura Garcia said her 12-year-old son was in ESL classes two years ago but now is earning honors as a middle school student. This year, he needed a counselor and waited for nearly three months to get an appointment. Last year’s flat funding was a “decrease.”
Dachowitz “must not know any of our precious children. I took that comment personally, I was extremely insulted,” one mother said in an email read by Lam.
Edward Philipp, in an email read by Lam, said, “As a former municipal employee in Norwalk, I know the game that is played. No one looks to save money as they will never get it back in their budget going forward.”
He said, “The CFO’s strategy is to pit one side against the other and hope we don’t notice. We have one party rule in the city partly because registered Democrats outnumber registered Republican but also because on a national level, the Republicans have gone off the rails. Don’t get too comfortable. Because at the end of the day, all politics are local and if you continue to make decisions that hurt my children, our family, I will have no choice but to support any candidate that oppose you in the next election.”
Tyler Fairbairn, in an email read by Lam, said, “other municipal services – a dog park, the senior center, and filled potholes – do not provide a return on investment in the Econ 101 understanding of the phrase. As a community we set priorities and understand that you can’t pay taxes ala carte. A return on investment we get from adequately funding our school is giving children, among the most vulnerable members of Norwalk, an opportunity to have a decent fulfilling life.”
Anne Radecki said her oldest child, a Nathan Hale Middle School student, tested in the top 98% nationally while her youngest, a Naramake Elementary student, “received intervention math support to bring her to grade level.”
“They are your spectrum and I promise you they are good return on your investment as is every children you have been elected to represent and support in your city,” she said, in an email read by Lam.
“Henry’s palpable hostility and vitriol tarnish Norwalk’s reputation and make it harder for us all to achieve our mutual goal of a thriving city,” former BoE member Sarah LeMieux said in an email read by Lam.
LeMieux continued, “I’m sure you all know that testing metrics are not a measure of a child’s mind or potential. I’m sure you’re all aware of the institutional racism at play in the discussion of American School generally, and Connecticut schools in particular. I’m sure you all know that investment in child is not only an investment in your community, and that the perception of a robust school system is a huge piece of the actual valuation of community, of a very concrete investment in Norwalk itself.”
“We should also not forget the achievements of our students as we talk about our return on investment. Our children do get into good schools, they are multilingual by choice,” Board of Education member Janine Randolph said.
Board of Education Vice Chairwoman Diana Carpio said elected officials had told her the “children are not worth that much, (the) staff get paid too much, (the) buildings do not need all of that work.”
“All I’m asking right now is for all of us to go back to the drawing board and start from scratch,” Carpio said. “Forget about history. Forget about who doesn’t like whom. Forget about all the fights. And let’s remember the children because they matter and their futures matter.”
“I speak to many parents from all school levels regularly. And I can tell you I have never heard such negativity towards the Norwalk Public School system as I do today. More and more parents are considering if they can find the funds to put their children in private school. This is a huge shift considering before pandemic, I was hearing the opposite,” Amy Strickland said in an email read by Lam.
“I know that there’s an ongoing efficiency study. And I certainly hope that it finds massive inefficiencies in our public schools so that we’re able to able to find an easy solution. But I’m not hopeful,” Julie Fleming said.
Only one speaker didn’t ask the Council to give the schools more money; Diane Lauricella asked parents to study the budgets line by line and see where economies of scale could be found.
Lauricella, an activist who rarely misses a budget public hearing, ran through a list of criticisms, including an assertion that the schools could save money by using more renewable energy and instituting an “effective recycling and reduction program.”
“I ask that the ‘Board of Ed’ scrub some of their Central Office as a trade in good faith, reduce at least two or three of the newly hired expensive Central Office people and donate those funds to the important social emotional learning consultants,” she said, also suggesting the City hire a permanent sustainability officer and make the grants writer into a full-time position.
Voting for the $414.1 million budget cap were David Heuvelman (D-District A), Thomas Keegan (R-District D), John Kydes (D-District C) and Greg Burnett (D-At Large). Abstaining were Jenn McMurrer (D-District C), Nora Niedzielski-Eichner (D-At Large), Diana Révolus (D-District B).
Kydes, a Mayoral candidate for 2023, made no comments.
Niedzielski-Eichner said she was “thrilled” that the Board of Education is slated for the 4.5% increase but “I still think that number is too low.” She suggested the Council move it to 5.4% to fund the “incubator” for the hoped-for South Norwalk neighborhood school.
Council member Heidi Alterman (D-District D), who is not on the Committee, said she is still “very offended” by Dachowitz’ comment and asked if he’d put into practice any changes since he’d said it.
Burnett, Finance Committee chairman, diverted any answer, telling Alterman he wanted to “keep the questions that we’re raising now related to the motion that’s on the floor related to the operating budget cap that we’re trying to move forward.”
Heuvelman asked the parents to “hang on to that energy and go to Hartford to talk about ECS (Educational Cost Sharing) funding with the same passion, because we do need more funding coming to Norwalk.”