NORWALK, Conn. – A prominent Norwalk Democrat used the history of Republican action in Norwalk Thursday to try to wriggle a commitment from Mayor Harry Rilling to fully fund the Head Start program.
Bobby Burgess, chairman of the District B Democrats, stood up at Thursday’s Mayor’s Night Out to run through the history of the Head Start program under Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON), which he founded, and ask Rilling where he and the Board of Estimate and Taxation stand. Rilling said the BET would like to give the Norwalk Housing Authority (NHA) money to run Head Start through the summer and to boost the number of children in the program in the next school year, but they need more specific information about how much it would cost.
Head Start was run by NEON since the late 1960s, but the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) took the program from the agency in October. After a lag of several weeks, Community Development Institute (CDI) ran the program before turning it over to NHA in February.
The Housing Authority has been awarded a federal grant to run Head Start but is struggling to figure out administrative costs because there are no historical records to refer to, Executive Director Curtis Law said Wednesday.
Law said the NHA has state and federal funding for 177 children, but 232 have been enrolled. He was seeking an unspecified amount of money to keep at least some of the 55 children who are unfunded in the program, and to continue Head Start through the summer.
On Thursday, Burgess had a copy of an email he had sent Rilling. It referred to actions taken by former Mayor Frank Esposito and former Mayor Alex Knopp.
Burgess wrote that NEON originally operated Head Start in conjunction with the Board of Education but, in the late 1980’s, Esposito said that if the two did not dissolve that relationship he would cut $500,000 in funding to the BOE. In conjunction with that, he promised that the city would always contribute to NEON as its “fair share” to maintain the quality of services and number of children that had been served by the BOE.
The split occurred. NEON got a 3 percent increase in funding every year, but when Knopp took over the increases stopped, he said.
When Burgess retired as NEON executive director in 2003, the city was funding $996,000 for Head Start, he said. NEON also got $396,000 in one city grant and $441,000 in another, he wrote.
“Being involved in Norwalk politics since 1968, it is hard for me to believe that what a Republican administration has funded to assist the disadvantaged population of our community (black, brown and poor white citizens), the Democratic administration is taking away. This should be a wake-up call for all of us. That there is not a level playing field for all of Norwalk’s citizens.
He did not mention former Republican Mayor Richard Moccia, who cut the $1.3 million NEON had been getting annually in the wake of a damning federal audit.
He also did not mention the former mayor by name as he spoke.
“Now I hear there is no money for Head Start,” he said. “When the city took Head Start funding away from NEON for that reason, I thought that money would go into an escrow account, and when we got back onboard it would be funded. Now I am hoping the city will allocate these funds to the Housing Authority to bring the number of kids, these same kids will be going into Head Start, to the school system. So if we don’t get them at an early age we will be losing out. I think it is imperative. Frank Esposito administration told me they would do. I know for a fact what Frank Esposito did under a Republican administration. I am hoping that a Democrat administration — don’t take it away from the poor kids. Poor black, brown and white kids. I am asking the city to make sure to give the Housing Authority the funds it needs to keep this a viable program for the community, for the disadvantaged population.”
Rilling said there have been “several meetings over the last couple of weeks looking at the financials and funding streams” to try to resolve the situation, repeating some of what was said at Wednesday’s BET meeting.
“Unfortunately, there is not a lot of records to rely on to determine how much funding is necessary,” he said. “We’re not sure how much funding is coming from the federal government yet, how much money is coming from CDI, what is left from … when they ran it for six weeks. How much money is coming from the School Readiness Council. So we’re working on it.”
Burgess pounced. “So I think you’re saying ‘Yes,’ you will fund the Head Start program,” he said, drawing laughter.
“We’re working on how much we have to fund it, yes,” Rilling said. “The Board of Estimate last night was very clear in saying that we support the Head Start program and we have to try to find how much money is needed in order to fund the program. We don’t know that right now. The last thing we want to do is throw money at a program when we don’t know the amount.
“For instance, they are saying $9,000 per child. Well, once you get so many children in the program the next child does not raise the cost of the program by $9,000. You get that economies of scale.”
On Wednesday night, Finance Director Thomas Hamilton tried to pin down BET members for an opinion, looking for direction on how to proceed. There were three options, he said: refuse to give any more money in deference to the burden on taxpayers, fund the 55 children and the summer program or fund some of the children, not all.
“My feeling is none of the three are OK until you have some kind of number to fit in there,” BET member Jim Feigenbaum said.
“I am not comfortable making any recommendations because of the fact that we don’t have any specific numbers, having gone through it and we can look at where the cuts have been,” said BET member Erik Anderson, who had earlier expressed sympathy for the needs of the children but concern over the numbers. “… I can’t tell you what I want to give you because we don’t know ultimately what you need.”
Director of Management and Budgets Bob Barron said that if he looked at one set of numbers, 20 children would cost $160,000 but if he looked at a different set it would be $84,000.
“So which one do you grant?” he asked.
Rilling offered a summation. No one refuted it.
“I think we all probably feel pretty much the same way,” he said. “We understand the efficacy and the need for the Head Start program and we want to support it. I think we want to do what we can reasonably without being over-taxing on the citizens as well. I think we want to do everything we can within our power and within reason to support the program. I don’t think we can make a statement beyond that until we have those numbers and then we can work with you to where we can make some cost savings.”
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