NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk Superintendent Manny Rivera was finally allowed to passionately present his operating budget funding request for the next school year Tuesday, gaining unanimous Board of Education approval for the $168.1 million plan as he spoke of a “full frontal attack” on the achievement gap in Norwalk Public Schools.
Rivera talked about taking a tough attitude toward school administrators and staff and advocated a vision for the future that might include changing the grade levels at Norwalk schools. He and Chief Financial Officer Richard Rudl pitched both the operating budget and a $5.9 million capital budget request, which also attained unanimous approval.
The operating budget presentation had been planned for Dec. 17 but was postponed because of snow. Budget documents have been online since Dec. 27.
The requests will now go to the city’s finance department.
Rivera talked of creating a culture of accountability.
“If we are going to really transform Norwalk Public Schools and get the kind of high performance that we expect from every single child in this school, we have to be going on all cylinders and on all tracks,” he said. “We have to look at how we change the culture that we operate in, high expectations … building the knowledge and the skills constantly of our teachers and our school leaders. Principals are key in our buildings. We’ve got to be really clear about the standards that we have for our principals, similarly for our teachers.”
School quality reviews and professional standards aligned with new evaluation systems were among the priorities laid out in the budget.
“When we have a standard where everybody is rated a proficient or exemplary and our performance data is telling us otherwise, we are accepting mediocrity,” he said. “We can’t. We have to be clear in what our professional standards are, how that gets to be then aligned with our performance system. … We have to raise the bar for everybody.”
Every year, one or two schools would go through a vigorous review, he said. As the switch to Common Core State Standards progresses, there will be non-negotiable standards for skills teachers and administrators must have, he said.
Special Education also is a priority. Rivera said he and others spent all day last Friday studying the Capital Region Education Council (CREC) review of Norwalk’s special education department. The budget includes $245,000 to implement the report’s recommendations.
It also calls for $285,000 for a Human Resources department redesign, reorganization, staff recruitment and systems improvement. “How we select our staff, the kinds of orientations and introductions they get, all of that is critically important,” he said, pitching the request for a “state of the art” HR department.
Rivera’s plan calls for the elimination of six assistant principal positions, with the goal of having a full-time curriculum and instruction site director at each elementary school, focusing on Common Core, K-3 literacy and supervision and evaluation. The budget would fund six such directors. Rivera said he is confident that a foundation – which he cannot name at present – will come through with funding in late February for five more, bringing the total to 11.
The budget calls for a one-time $100,000 expense to create a facility utilization plan. He spoke of possibly changing which grades attend which schools.
Rudl said there are 100 more students in the schools this year, and an additional 100 are projected for next year. A significantly greater percentage of students are on free or reduced lunch, Rivera said, going on to say that he is still trying to understand the way Connecticut allocates education funding that the Education Cost Sharing (ECS) formula “drives him crazy”.
There are other factors: state reimbursement for transportation costs and special education costs are going down, he said.
The operating budget was done using a multi-year approach for the first time so administrators can “begin to target those potential adjustments we want to do in the future,” Rivera said.
The budget calls for a 3.6 percent increase over last year’s budget. A 4.7 percent increase is forecast for 2015-2016 and a 3.5 percent increase is forecast for the year after that.
BOE Chairman Mike Lyons said a lot of work and “very deep thought” had gone into the “fiscally responsible” budget requests. He said he appreciated the improvements made last year and this year, after seeing “incoherent” budgets in his six years on the Board of Estimate and Taxation.
“I really get the sense now that we are getting some realistic goals and targets that we can aim at,” he said.