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Rivera looking to spend $200K to improve Norwalk student experiences

Norwalk Superintendent Manny Rivera
Norwalk Superintendent Manny Rivera.

NORWALK, Conn. – Plans to use more than $200,000 of the windfall uncovered for the Norwalk Board of Education have shifted away from construction in the Central Office and toward the services that will affect students.

Norwalk Public Schools Superintendent Manny Rivera said in a memo to the BoE that the money should be used to shift the schools’ culture in accordance with the strategic plan approved by the board. While ideas and suggestions for spending the money came in from board members, Rivera said they either did not fit the criteria of avoiding using the money for recurring operational expenses or were already being addressed, just along a different time frame or via other funding.

The windfall in question stems from the $3.1 million surplus shown in the results for Fiscal Year 2013-14. Of that, $224,596 will go to 2013/14 expenses that have not been paid yet, leaving $2.9 million. The board can carry over 1 percent of its operating budget, or $1,643,187, according to state statutes. The remaining $1.3 million would have to be authorized for BoE use by the city in a special appropriation.

The recommendations made to the board two weeks ago included spending $225,000 on physical changes to the Human Resource and Finance Department to ensure confidentiality for staff and to keep confidential documents secure, in accordance with the law. Rivera also suggested staffing and systems improvements as recommended in the Blum Shapiro study of the HR department, but said in his Aug. 29 memo that reassigning current staff and office space, as well as less costly office renovations, will meet the specified goals.

Instead, Rivera recommended that $200,000 be used for professional learning targeted toward student engagement and early literacy initiatives and/or resources to improve intervention.

Those recommendations are inspired by requests made by administrators during an all-day Aug. 19 meeting, which focused on improving school and classroom culture, student engagement and student progress monitoring and intervention, he said.

BoE Finance Committee members discussed the surplus Aug. 20 and a decision was made to ask board members for suggestions of how a portion of the money should be spent. Rivera, in his memo, specified this list of ideas from Artie Kassimis, Shirley Mosby, Mike Barbis and Heidi Keyes:

• Providing additional funds for athletics

• Purchasing additional seats in reading and Math 180 to provide skill building for students

• Completing (accelerating) safety and security upgrades

• School infrastructure needs such as school lockers and windows

• Social Studies books and curriculum resources

• Smartboards

• Marching band support

• Seeking input from school administrators

Rivera said he was addressing some of those ideas to an extent with his latest recommendation. Other suggestions are on the radar screen but “are being addressed in a different time frame or via other funding sources.”

He provided this list:

Safety and security: “We are currently fast-tracking a number of bids to accelerate improvements for $2.3 million of capital. We are also collaborating with the city to submit another school safety grant for $300,000.”

Lockers: “We will be utilizing $25 to $30,000 of existing funding to replace damaged lockers. We will access all aspects of our locker rooms and consider necessary upgrades that may be included in our multiyear operational budget.”

Social studies: “Tony Dadonna will soon be meeting with the Curriculum Committee and will share plans for moving forward with the establishment of a committee and ensuring that our social studies curriculum is aligned with Connecticut state standards. The committee’s timeline will also be shared, as well as the expected dates for the purchase of any new social studies curriculum to be purchased and/or developed.”

Band and athletics: “The past June, we transferred $35,000 to provide needed equipment for Norwalk High’s marching band. This Tuesday’s board agenda also includes a second transfer of funds, $35,000, for the Brien McMahon marching band. Rich Rudl has also established a budget committee to address more thoroughly, and in time for the upcoming budget process, the issue of funding equity and allocation of funds for athletics and bands.”

Smartboards: “We currently have $35,000 in our budget for projectors (Smartboards), which would enable us to install approximately 20 units. We will continue to request our funds each year for both replacement purposes and to add projectors throughout our schools.”

Comments

12 responses to “Rivera looking to spend $200K to improve Norwalk student experiences”

  1. Oldtimer

    Any consideration of returning some of the surplus to the City ? Maybe a first step in reducing taxes ?

  2. Admo

    That’s why you call yourself Old Timer

  3. Taxpayer Fatigue

    The BOE is touting the statistic that their “departmental” increase was the smallest of any of the city departments. As a “department” of the city, the BOE budget is 52% of the entire city budget. For 2014/15, the city budget, excluding the BOE, increased $3,955,205, while the BOE budget alone (with the “smallest departmental increase”) increased $4,159,001 – over $200,000 more than the rest of the city budget increase.

    It’s great that the BOE is finally getting their house in order, but the reality is, that more than half of our taxes go to pay for our schools, and more than half of this year’s tax increase was for “funding the smallest departmental increase” in the overall city budget.

    It is fair for some of the savings to be re-invested in our schools, but it is also fair that some of this money go back to taxpayers, at least in the form of less of an increase for 2015/16. Perhaps with some moderation in school spending, a reduction in the rate of increase in our taxes, and some improvement in our abysmal test scores, our stagnant real estate values will finally start to improve.

  4. Mike Lyons

    Fatigue, did you like it better during the last 20 years when the schools budget was rising twice as fast as the rest of the City budget, instead of at a lower rate? We could have sat back and let that keep happening, instead of doing all we’ve done to straighten things out. And our “abysmal” test scores are (i) rising (see https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2013/09/rivera-norwalks-test-scores-show-improvement-across-ethnic-groups) and (ii) highest in the State among cities (see https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2013/08/test-scores-norwalk-tops-among-cities-but-lags-behind-state). Not good enough by any means — that’s why we’re pushing our K-5 Literacy and other initiatives — but getting better.

  5. Taxpayer Fatigue

    M. Lyons: All the more reason to give some of the surplus back to taxpayers. I’m glad that, with the exception of three members, the bi-partisan BOE is supporting Dr. Rivera in his initiatives and I hope that all the investment pays off in improved test scores. Unfortunately, people compare Norwalk to Darien, Westport, Fairfield and New Canaan schools and our test scores need to be at least in the high 80% range if not the 90% range that those school districts enjoy if we ever want our property values to improve. It is great to see Norwalk moving ahead of Stamford in at least this one area, but comparing us to Bridgeport, New Haven and New Britain is irrelevant when it comes to the impact of our low test scores on real estate values.

    I do think it is a bit misleading to compare the BOE as a “department within the city budget” when the BOE budget is more than all the rest of the city budget put together as it masks the magnitude of the increase in spending and the impact on our property tax bills. As you point out, after years of runaway, uncontrolled spending rising twice as fast as the City budget, I would expect Dr. Rivera to find additional savings of at least $2-3M each year for the next several years, which isn’t much on a $166M budget.

  6. Taxpayer Fatigue

    All the more reason to send some of the savings back to the taxpayer….I’m glad that, with the exception of three members, the bipartisan BOE is supporting Dr. Rivera and his initiatives. The reality is that people make real estate investment decisions based on a particular area, so comparing Norwalk’s test scores to New Britain, New Haven and Bridgeport, is just parsing data to make us all feel better, but unfortunately, people compare us to New Canaan, Westport, Darien and yes, Stamford. Norwalk’s test scores need to be at least in the high 80 percentile range if not the 90 percentile – to have any real impact on property values. At least we are starting to lead Stamford.

    The city’s budget, excluding the BOE, increased 2.557% while the BOE’s budget increased 2.563% for 14/15 over 13/14. While the city’s budget increase is slightly lower on a percentage basis, I’d still call it a tie. I certainly wouldn’t be saying that the BOE’s increase is smaller because it isn’t. Given that the BOE’s budget is $166.4M and the City’s is $151.1M, comparing the BOE to any of the individual departments within the city’s budget makes no sense – it is just masking the truth of the magnitude of the increases in our taxes from the budget increase.

  7. Mike Lyons

    Fatigue, you want us to achieve New Canaan-like scores in a school system with 49% of our kids on reduced fee lunch without spending money on school improvements?

  8. Taxpayer Fatigue

    I’m not that optimistic that no matter how much we spend, we’ll ever achieve “new canaan-like ” results – it would be great to just be somewhere in the same ballpark. No where have I said we should not invest or cut spending in our schools – I’m asking for moderation in the inevitable increases in budget that the BOE will ask for in the 15/16 budget, which is coming in just a few months. You’ve found some savings – great! Reinvest some of it in our schools and give some back to the taxpayer by offsetting your increase request for 15/16. Good grief – whatever happened to fiscal conservatism?

  9. Mike Lyons

    BTW, my statement that the BoE’s percentage budget increase was lower this year than other City departments was accurate. Our increase this year was 2.56%; by contrast the Fire Department increase was 8.36%, Police increase was 3.61%, Public Works 4.89%, Recreation and Parks 8.02%.
    .
    Overall the BoE budget went up $4,159,001. The City budget increase appeared smaller than that, but the City budget increase was offset by $1,744,302 transferred to the City by the BoE as we paid off our insurance debt ahead of schedule. If you exclude that prepayment offset by the BoE to the City, you get the actual increase in City spending – $5,699,507, or 3.92% – higher than the BoE increase, as I have stated.
    .
    Fiscal conservatism is shown by reducing the rate of BoE budget increases from its historic 4.5% to 2.56%, through looking at every avenue to cut costs (e.g., custodial work outsourcing, better use of technology, energy efficiencies), looking at alternative revenue sources (private grants) and, yes, spending money intelligently. The biggest chunk of money in our spending proposal for the surplus is for bringing special education students back into the schools — a plan that could save us millions of dollars a year (Norwalk spends $6.2 million on out of district tuition while Danbury pays $2.88 million for a similar SPED population each year). Now we COULD ‘turn that $1 million back to the taxpayers’ this year — and keep taxing them for that extra $3.3 million per year indefinitely. Or we could try to spend the $1 million to solve the problem — and save the taxpayers that $3.3 million per year. I’d call the latter fiscal conservatism (at least if your time frame is longer than one year).

  10. peter parker

    We are spending too much on the school budget. They have to cut spending and any surplus should go back to the taxpayers. The school budget is out of control and the schools are not any better now than they were 10 years ago. Disgraceful!

  11. Mike Lyons

    Peter – “The school budget is out of control and the schools are not any better now than they were 10 years ago.” Can you back these statements up with any statistics? I can refute them pretty easily just by pointing to multiple articles already published in NON.

  12. Norewalk Lifer

    When was the last time that food service, and construction services were put out for competitive bid? I read the comment about reduced school lunch programs and wonder how the city manages this cost.
    *
    I don’t think the BOE should be responsible for these kind of services, including the outsourcing of janitorial positions; hiring people at a reduced labor rate, can lead to longer durations for work scopes; happens all the time in the construction industry, it makes me wonder if these individuals really have the gravitas to administer these funds.
    *
    Independent audit of the expenditures should be in place, enough with the “statistics” there should be data which supports the work, not the convenience of what makes the data look good, that’s called normalization of data.
    *
    Stating that the percentage increase of the school budget, without looking at the raw numbers, and tracing back to their origins, is a little disengenous; if there is a surplus, there should be a review, thru failure mode analysis, of where that money SHOULD be spent in order to retire major risks in the infrastructure.
    *
    I am not going to blithely accept the “ideas” of the BOE members, while we appreciate their volunteer spirit, this cuts a little to far into their expertise; perception of what should be improved is different than actual risk analysis.
    *
    If we need smartboards, there are enough corporations who have outreach programs; take advantage of that, the BOE in Norwalk is a little prideful in this regard. They may or may not accept what outreach programs have to offer the Norwalk School system, but that decision shouldn’t be up to them.
    *
    I’ve worked for a corporation that has a major worldwide outreach program, and the board that steered the work complained that they couldn’t get to first base with the Norwalk BOE. That’s a shame, there are CPAP programs in the state that are benefitting from these programs, Norwalk missed the boat on that one.

    I think the comment about 49% of the reduced lunch program goes towards our kids; does that tell the community anything? are these people simply getting a break, or are they struggling to make ends meet? But to use this as an excuse for lower testing scores, as compared to border towns, well that seems a little too convenient for me; there are many great teachers in Norwalk, the BOE finds itself as a cause celebrite, here, and in other publications; when’s the last time we saw an article honoring a good teacher, a good school nurse? janitor? haven’t seen one.
    *
    The BOE can take credit for the good work, and the achievements, but they aren’t doing the heavy lifting; they are administrators, pure and simple, the real mechanics are the teachers and the students. Enough with the self-congratulatory comments.

    Regards
    Norwalk Lifer

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