School budget funding: Here we go again

By Tony Ditrio
Principal, Kendall Elementary School

Once again the present city administration is trying to underfund and undercut the education of our children. Over the last four years they have done this with ever-changing stories that just don’t have any validity.

First we were told that the economy was bad and we could not afford funding our schools. The devastating cuts began in the last year of Dr. Corda’s superintendency. The result was the elimination of positions and the shrinking of Central Office. It left us with a leadership team that was lacking in vision and being run by mostly retired administrators in interim positions.

When Dr. Marks arrived she was immediately confronted with millions of dollars in cuts to the system. Again we were told that the economy was bad, but now we added the notion that staff was over-compensated. This is when we heard the first salvo of hard pay freezes and shared sacrifice.

By Dr. Marks’ second year we were then confronted with a $4 million deficit in the insurance fund. This, they said, was due to mismanagement on the board’s part, and then proceeded to deduct $4 million from our next two years of budgets. Even though the Common Council voted to find ways to forgive the “loan,” the city would hear nothing about it and, together with the BET, ignored the will of the people.

I still find it amazing that the city leaders were able to convince people that the Board of Education could take $4 million out of the city’s coffers without them knowing. This was not money that the board had direct control over. If the board needed funds for insurance costs they needed to request funds from the city. It is the city who controls all the insurance money. Last year, while causing many critical job losses for the Board of Ed, the city was able to actually increase its “rainy day” fund. Over this period of time the Board of Education was forced to reduce spending by millions of dollars below what was needed just to maintain the adequate staffing and support for our children’s education.

One of the main arguments that we were constantly bombarded with was that if staff, and the teachers particularly, took a pay freeze, our financial troubles would all go away. Public school employees were portrayed as overpaid and greedy. Time and again our city leaders asked for pay freezes and led the public to believe that our schools could be funded properly if not for the union employees and the union leadership.

Here are the facts. Every Board of Education Union has taken at least one pay freeze the last two years and some more than once. This coming year, the teachers will get no raise and no step increases. The hard freeze that was so hyped has finally come to fruition. What is the result of this long-awaited answer to our financial problems? Even more cuts by the city and the BET to the Board of Education budget request. The only difference is the way the city and BET have come up with to take money away from the children.

When the board presented its budget request to the city and the BET, it was hailed as a fiscally responsible request by both the city and the BET. What was the result of this? The city and the BET proceeded to reduce this request so much that any hope of restoring some of the earlier damage was gone. The board was given just enough to keep what it had this year. In spite of the hard freeze, the board did not get what they asked for. So much for all the rhetoric from our city leaders.

I wish I could say that this is the end of the story. Instead, the city and BET have found a way to reduce board funding even more for next year. Their new plan is to reduce the previously agreed-to amount by whatever funds the state may give us beyond the regular ECS funding. They ignore the fact that any money the governor or the legislature is proposing is not intended to offset local funding. The uses of these funds would all be limited in scope and should not be used to fund present programs. These funds might be our only chance to get back some of the losses we have incurred the last few years.

Please don’t let the city and the BET continue its’ destruction of our school system. Your property values and the education of our children are at stake. Ask the BET to allocate the full amount of funding that was promised to the board.

Tony Ditrio

Principal, Kendall Elementary School

(Editor’s note: Mr. Ditrio is head of the Norwalk Association of School Administrators and is treasurer of Democratic mayoral candidate Matt Miklave’s campaign committee)


28 responses to “School budget funding: Here we go again”

  1. Bryan Meek

    Welcome to the real world. Stop threatening our children and let’s work together to figure out how you are going to do more with less just like everyone else has to.

  2. LWitherspoon

    In the interests of full disclosure, Tony Ditrio is the head of the Administrator’s Union and also the treasurer of Matt Miklave’s campaign for Mayor. Why is that not mentioned by Mr. Ditrio? Why just the title of “Principal, Kendall Elementary School” at the top of this letter?
    The last time Mr. Ditrio appeared in the papers he was defending the school district IT director who commuted to work from Massachusetts via private plane. You may recall that this member of Mr. Ditrio’s union was caught using taxpayer money to purchase expensive software for his private plane hobby. I don’t recall Mr. Ditrio’s exact defense of this deplorable behavior but it was something along the lines of “nobody noticed it immediately, so it wasn’t wrong.”
    One has to wonder what sort of favors Matt Miklave would owe Mr. Ditrio if Miklave manages to get elected Mayor, and how much those favors would cost the taxpayers.

    (Editor’s note: We have added an editor’s note to the end of the letter identifying Mr. Ditrio’s union and campaign affiliations.)

  3. Orange U. Glad

    Neither of the critics finds fault with the facts that Ditrio wrote about.
    They do find fault with Ditrio personally. Big deal.
    The anti-union, anti-public employee candidate Meek assumes that Ditrio’s whining. For an arch-conservative like him, it must be tough figuring out that a 0% raise for teachers wasn’t going to save the sytem.
    By the way, Brian, Kendall has one of the poorest student populations in the City of Norwalk. That is the real world.

  4. Bryan Meek

    OrangeUGlad. No the real world is where there are dozens of developed nations who have per capita incomes lower than what we spend on education for each child and yet they still have higher literacy rates. Classroom economics isn’t the problem. It is home economics. The more money we divert from the private sector into the public sector means that there are fewer jobs and opportunities for those poor children and their families that you pretend to care about. I’m not against unions nor teachers, but they do not deserve special protection that ordinary citizens do not have and like everyone else, they need to innovate and come up with better ways to do things more economically and efficiently. What’s wrong with asking them to do this when everyone else has to?

  5. Bruce Kimmel

    Mr. Ditrio’s interpretation of the causes and responsibility of last year’s $4 million shortfall is a figment of a politically charged imagination. It is also the opposite of the conclusions reached by Elio Longo,the BOE’s COO, and the auditors from Blum and Shapiro, both of whom pointed out how the insurance surplus was whittled down as money was quietly transferred into underfunded special education accounts. They also took strong exception to the BOE’s actual budgeting and transfer procedures, where projections were essentially unreal. Ditro apparently thinks people have short memories or can’t really understand fiscal issues. Or maybe he feels he can say anything because it’s an election year. By the way, cutting budget requests is not the same as budget reductions. Almost every department in the city had its request reduced. I expect much more from school principals.

  6. 0ldtimer

    Until somebody posts real budget nombers for the last few years, including dollar amount per student, we are left with choosing who to believe. That gets pretty subjective and hard numbers would be a big help. I am inclined to believe Mr Ditrio is probably a reliable reporter, but hard numbers instead of personal criticism without facts will show us all all who to believe. I recall questioning how the school system was expected to repay a $4 million loan at the time. I doubted cake sales would do it. This administration seems to see the school system as an unwelcome burden, while other communities value their systems as an asset that does wonders for real estate values and, thereby, their tax base.

  7. Peter I Berman

    Once again we have a school employee union head giving lopsided advise on the school budget process. Never mind his participation in the mayoral campaign. In other school districts school employees stick to their knitting. In Norwalk they are involved in the political process for their obvious benefit. Public school teachers only received a hard freeze through a successful arbitration appeal by the BOE. The award panel identified our teachers salaries as 5th highest in the. State. Many more freezes would be required to create affordable teachers salaries in Norwalk. Let’s hope our new Supt will withstand the wrath of our school unions and their ill disguised efforts to secure excessive salaries.

  8. Frankie_Boy

    Somebody has got to explain something to me–
    Ditrio seems to have a lot of political baggage. I get it. But how does that justify politicos like Kimmel, Meeks and Berman distorting what the guy wrote?
    There are lots of good reasons why the rainy day fund shouldn’t be used for the Board of Education budget. Too bad the character assassins and pontificators didn’t want to have an honest debate on that issue. Instead, they responded to things that weren’t written.

  9. Tony Ditrio

    First off I don’t know where Bryan Meek can claim I am threatening children. What real world do you live in? As for not mentioning all my credentials I would also note that I did not say I was a 43 year employee of the Norwalk Public Schools where I have been a classroom teacher, Central Office Administrator and for the last 13 years an Elementary Principal. I also did not disclose that I have lived in Norwalk for over 35 years and that both of my children received an excellent education in the Norwalk Public Schools. As for my political actions I would expect that I have the same rights to participate in the political process as any other citizen. In fact I am involved because of what I see as a systematic destruction of our school system. I have nothing to gain from my actions. I have a difficult time understanding why being President of the Administrators Association (not technically a union) requires me to be quiet or for my concerns to be somewhat tainted. This anti union rhetoric is exactly what has been used to deny the schools funding needed for the education of our children. No one in my Association gets a single penny from the funding asked for. Our salaries and benefits are set through collective bargaining that is regulated and controlled by the State.
    If Mr Kimmel wants to believe that he knows what happened with the four million because he heard Mr. Longo and read a report then that is fine but he can not refute anything that I said. I do recall that he did vote to have 1.8 million of that not payed back. Of course he could change his mind tomorrow as we all know he does all the time.

  10. LWitherspoon

    I focused my comment on Mr. Ditrio’s political and union leadership activities because I felt it was downright disingenuous on Mr. Ditrio’s part to inform us that he is Principal of Kendall Elementary while omitting his other roles.
    As Union head, Mr. Ditrio’s job is to fight for the largest possible amount of our tax dollars for his members. Apparently his job also includes defending union members who get caught using taxpayer money to fund their commute via private plane. There’s nothing wrong with Mr. Ditrio doing his job, but readers deserve to know first and foremost that he has a very big axe to grind as they evaluate the credibility of his other statements.
    As for the veracity of the rest of the piece, nobody has time to fact-check Mr. Ditrio’s every statement. What I do is look for “tells” and make up my mind based on those. My first tell is the statement from Common Councilman Bruce Kimmel that Mr. Ditrio’s description of the causes of the budget shortfall is a “figment of a politically charged imagination.” In case you’re not aware, Councilman Kimmel is well-respected by Republicans and Democrats alike as one of the hardest working, most thoughtful and independent representatives we have on Common Council. Kimmel was intimately involved in the budget process, and is a Public School teacher and presumably a union member himself. Kimmel’s education bonafides will stand next to Mr. Ditrio’s any day. But he also keeps Norwalk taxpayers in mind, since he represents all of Norwalk rather than just Norwalk’s unions. In case anybody is wondering, Norwalk taxpayers are the ones who provided more than $150 million for education this year. Correct me if I’m wrong but I believe that is an all-time record high, which ought to be mentioned every time anyone speaks of attempts to reign in the growth of spending, aka “cuts”.
    My second tell is the way Mr. Ditrio presents the issue of pay freezes: “Every Board of Education Union has taken at least one pay freeze the last two years and some more than once.” Reading this, one might assume that the Unions magnanimously accepted a pay freeze. The reality is that the teachers union fought tooth and nail against such a freeze and only accepted it because they were forced to by an independent arbitrator’s binding decision. Note that the pay freeze is for just one year – there are raises in the second year of the current contract. It would be nice to give everybody a raise every year, but it’s not fair to the taxpayers who don’t enjoy that same privilege of a guaranteed raise every year.
    The third tell is the cheap sophistry Mr. Ditrio employs. Last year, he claims, we were told that cuts were needed because the Teachers Union refused to accept a pay freeze. This year, the Board of Ed’s negotiators won a pay freeze, but it’s still not possible to give the schools every dollar they asked for. Therefore, Mr. Ditrio reasons, the pay freeze didn’t actually accomplish anything. What he completely ignores is the reality that health care and other benefit costs rose dramatically. So the pay freeze did in fact accomplish something, because in the absence of the freeze there would have been millions more in cuts or tax hikes. It is disingenuous of Mr. Ditrio to suggest that anyone ever claimed a one-year pay freeze would provide the schools money as far as the eye can see.

  11. Joanne Romano

    Once again we hear that this “Administration” is cutting funding to our schools. While I wish we could give the BOE every cent they ask for because our kids deserve it, I also have to say that the misleading headline grabbers need to stop! The city/administration never cuts the BOE budget! They do however look at the numbers and make decisions based on what Norwalk and its taxpayers can afford and come back with numbers that are more realistic. Just because a department asks for x amount of $$$ does not mean the city is in a position to afford it. This is a never ending battle of words and misinformation that occurs each and every year dating back to the beginning of time…unfortunately the powers that be i.e. Mr. Ditio etc. choose to play the scare tactics to their limits and cause so much turmoil and distrust, pitting teachers against teachers, administrators against each other and parents against all. Here’s an idea, how about if all the principles, union president and vice president reduce their salaries so that the very people who we are supposed to take care (the Children) of can get the funding needed???? Sorry but in a world of uncertainties everyone needs to give back sometimes! How about proper funding for the classrooms so teachers have the tools they need and don’t have to reach into their own pockets in order to do so. A teacher should never have to buy their own supplies and a child should never have to go without the necessities to get the best education! And stop the insanity of threatening to cut Special Ed, sports, music etc. In case you forget, these too are important pieces of a well rounded child. leave the library aides in place, enough kids are graduating without the basics without adding to these numbers. Take a pay cut folks, why should any principal/administrator/union president etc. within the BOE be making upward of $160,000 per year plus benefits and perks. Something is definitely wrong here! And I really don’t care what anyone has to say about my posting because I have said it since I raised my daughter in our schools and I will say it until such time as I leave Norwalk. Education is about the “CHILDREN” the bulk of funding should go into the classrooms!

  12. Joanne Romano

    On an average Principal salaries in Norwalk are 4% higher than average School Principal salaries nationwide. This might be a good time to look into why we can’t put money into the classrooms and why we constantly threaten our parents and students with the doom and gloom of cutting programs!

  13. David

    Joanne, you’re saying that Principles salary in Norwalk is only 4% higher than the national average?

    The cost of living in Fairfield County, is way more than than that. 30%? 40%?

    People can talk about cutting salaries all they want, but in the end, it’s an open market. You pay market rate or you don’t get people to work for you.

  14. Joanne Romano

    David, please take a look at the following and you will certainly deduce that $160,000 is above most if not all principal salaries in the State of CT. Please also take into consideration the fact that the ECS formula does not take into account Norwalk’s diverse community and its need to fund our schools properly because they determine that we are part of the “Gold Coast” and yet we pay our Principals more than most towns/cities in and around Fairfield County!


    Mind you, I believe our teachers deserve the salaries because they are the ones who directly affect the students on a daily basis. Argue if you will but this is nothing more than a dog and pony show each and every year that not only scares the students and parents but also outrages the taxpayers.
    ( Take a look at the 4-Sale signs) Supplies for the students and classrooms should be first priority. A teacher should not have to pay for them out of their own pockets. Imagine trying to lure new , great teachers to Norwalk and tell them we have the best salaries but oh yeah you’ll have to pay for what you need in your classroom out of that salary! Now there’s an incentive for you!

  15. Joanne Romano

    School Principal – U.S. National Averages Base pay only

    10th% 25th% 75th% 90th%

    $73,265 $83,285 $106,075 $116,804

    What is the base Pay for Norwalk/Fairfield County Principals?

  16. David

    Sorry Joanne, maybe I just misunderstood this line in your comment: “On an average Principal salaries in Norwalk are 4% higher than average School Principal salaries nationwide.”

    Did you typo the “4%”?

  17. Joe Espo

    “Unions began forming in the mid-19th century in response to the social and economic impact of the industrial revolution.” – Wikipedia

    Why in heavens name do teachers need a union? What is “industrial” about the working conditions behind teaching sixth graders?

    Decertify the union and we solve our budget problems. Offer teachers an alternative. Make it profitable for teachers to be good teachers. Offer buy-out bonuses for decertification.

    Radical? Something needs to be done. We’re being strangled by teacher and administrator salaries. The kids are being hamstrung by work rules.

    Teachers SHOULD eventually be replaced by computer-centric education. Let’s roll.

  18. Joanne Romano

    @ Dave-looking at the median (that’s median/suggested, not actual) salaries and comparing with other cities with approx the same student population as Norwalk, it seems that Norwalk’s principal salaries are on an average 2.5% higher. I’m not taking away the importance of a principal’s job but I am questioning the necessity of the salaries based upon the need of the students learning tools and the fact that each and every year the students are the ones that suffer in a tug of war while the salaries never decrease. There are many ways to re-budget so that the kids benefit from the monies provided. I am not a budget wiz nor do I profess to be one but we have some of the brightest financial people around that should be able to find ways to get around this horrible fight each and every year. It does nothing for the moral of the teachers, students or parents and only proves to be destructive in the end. While I understand that the Union heads are there to protect those they serve, we as adults are here to protect the needs of the students.

    Top Principal Salary 2012 $168,407.59 * Lowest Principal Salary 2012 $143,794.94 with the average median Principal Salary in CT at $140,874.

  19. Bryan Meek

    A principal is arguably a school’s most vital human resource. Sure teachers can and do make a difference all the time, but it is the principal that steers the ship and can give the kind of leadership that underperforming teachers might need to help achieve our goals. They can also recognize superior talent and make sure it fosters and grows. They can lead our children by example and be great role models. There was a time when school principals actually taught classes in the middle of their administrative duties. When I was going thru NPS it was Urban, Cafero, and Dunlap who were impressive authoritative figures that you knew cared but meant business. They didn’t teach classes, but they didn’t have an army of assistants either like our administrators have today. They also didn’t parade our children out in front of the city to cry hardship. They were leaders and we managed to scratch out an education even though it was only 1/3 of the city’s budget as opposed to the 2/3s it is today.

    Maybe the school system is deteriorating, as Mr. Ditrio says, because we are spending an increasing amount of money on paperwork and b.s. instead of the kids. Why can’t the current group of leadership look back 43 years and figure this out? Why can’t they install in our children a sense of achievement that teaches them they can overcome obstacles in life? Instead they pander to the electorate preying on our weakest sympathies of wanting to provide for our children. In a world where billions of people live in squalor on less than a few thousand bucks a year, we have leaders teaching our children that they are victims of a budget. It doesn’t get much worse.

  20. David

    Joanne: Thank you, first of all. I’m not sure which cities you are comparing Norwalk to, are they within Fairfield county? It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Norwalk commands higher salaries, most professional jobs pay more in Fairfield county. Only being 4% higher than the national average, and 2.5% higher than similar cities, honestly, surprises me. I thought it would be higher. That’s all.

    When you talk about “re-budgeting so that kids benefit” – can you give me some examples of what that means? I would imagine that means books, facilities, etc, as a part of it, but how would that be achieved? Is it cutting increases in pay? Fewer teachers, principals? Reduced budget for teacher training?

    I hear what you’re saying, but from my experience, my children in Norwalk schools have had the greatest benefit from good teachers. Teachers who took an interest in them and brought them through the learning process, even when that was hard. I feel that if the teachers were lower in quality, they wouldn’t have succeeded, in all likelihood.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that I see teachers, themselves, as a big, if not the biggest, part of the “kids benefit” statement you made.

    I’d be interested in your opinion.

  21. Joanne Romano

    With a 8+% unemployment rate in CT many are grateful to just have a job. The BOE budget is 2/3 of the city budget and we are looking at tax hikes that many cannot afford. I think a line item audit of wants vs needs is definitely the way to go. Perhaps the BOE members could have a committee of taxpayers sit in on the budget process and carefully look at each and every item with them and make suggestions on where money can be saved. As in all our lives we sometimes spend on items we “want” as apposed to the necessities! Living within our means can be achieved if spending is limited to the need first. First priority is in the classrooms. I don’t profess to have all the answers but I do know that teachers are only as good as the tools they are given to teach with. Thankfully we have excellent teachers with creative minds to make our kids educational experiences exciting and rewarding. But in order to do this most if not all have to reach into their own pockets to achieve their goals or they find creative fundraising events to allow them the extras they need. We also have to take into account building maintenance and other essentials. Maybe I’m crazy but in these uncertain times I think we should not be looking at pay raises but should instead be looking at ways to put the money where it belongs, in the classrooms for the kids! Take a survey and see how long it has been since most people have received raises and if they have what the percentage rates are on those raises and how many have benefits. I’m willing to bet it will be a very one sides survey, mostly leaning toward no raises/benefits but happy to be employed!

  22. Orange U. Glad

    These posts show what’s wrong with Norwalk. No one stays on topic- especially past and present politicians.
    Someone writes an editorial about the school budget process. Few people address his facts. We hear that he’s overpaid, that he has some secret agenda and that people don’t like him. So, how about debating if the school department has what it needs for our kids.
    By the way, basic math would tell you that the school department takes about half of the city’s total budget, not 2/3.

  23. Bryan Meek

    Orange U. Glad. FYI. 225 million out of 343 million in FY 2012. That roughly equates to 2/3s. Don’t take my word for it, it is right in the city’s financials on page 6 of the 2012 cafr. http://www.norwalkct.org/Archive.aspx?AMID=41

    Maybe you have the budget confused for what actually ends up being spent? If you go back to the earliest report we have on line from FY 2001 you will see that education spending was 110 million out of a total of 242 million, or roughly 45%.
    More interesting from the 2012 CAFR is page 198 where you can see the 10 year trend is education spending is up 50%. Then go to page 113 and you will see the 10 year trend on per capita income is up 25%. City debt is also up 50% in this same period.
    This isn’t sustainable.

  24. Joanne Romano

    Orange U. Glad, you see the budget is 60% vs 40% with the BOE getting the 60%. As far as getting off track, I simply stated that instead of taking away from the kids perhaps no pay raises for some of the highest paid school Admins in CT. Just my opinion! What are your thoughts of putting more money into the class rooms? Civil discussions instead of dog and pony shows get better results than the scare tactics put forth each and every year!

  25. LWitherspoon

    @Orange U. Glad
    Rather ironic that you’d like us to debate whether or not the school department has what it needs for our kids, because Mr. Ditrio’s piece above includes not one single example of critical items that the schools do not have.
    If the purpose of Mr. Ditrio’s piece were to convince us that more funding should go to the schools, a well-supported argument would include examples of unfunded items that the schools can’t live without, and what they would cost. Perhaps some “simple math” could be employed to tell us what that would cost an average Norwalk taxpayer. Then we as taxpayers could consider whether or not these spending requests justified raising our taxes more than the 4% tax hike we’re already paying.
    Instead, Mr. Ditrio chooses to argue that giving the schools anything less than what they ask for constitutes “taking money away from children.” This of course ignores the fact that the money originated from the taxpayers in the first place. It’s an tactic designed to play on emotion, to alarm rather than inform, and to score political points during an election year. All this while conveniently neglecting to inform us that Mr. Ditrio is a Union leader and treasurer of Matt Miklave’s campaign for Mayor. No, he’s just a concerned Norwalk citizen, and his political and union roles have nothing to do with the content of this letter. If you believe that, I’ve got a pier at Calf Pasture that I’ll sell you.
    On the subject of pay freezes, Mr. Ditrio claims that the pay freeze did not benefit schools because they’re still not getting everything they requested. The reality is that the pay freeze saved more than TWO MILLION DOLLARS!!! Which is something like 25 teaching positions. But our taxes are still going up by 4%, which accounts for a lot more than two million dollars. If my math is right, the tax hike is about ten million dollars more from taxpayers. So taxpayers fork over ten million dollars more, while Mr. Ditrio cries about the unfairness of teachers getting paid exactly the same next year as they were paid this year.
    Since you’d like to turn the discussion towards facts, how about answering this question. What is the total amount Norwalk taxpayers are spending on education in the proposed budget? How does that compare to the amount spent last year?

  26. Steve Colarossi

    I have been following the comments on the budget debate and LWitherspoon raises some great points.
    Last year, the Board of Education approved a local operating budget of approximately $159,000,000. In other words, we asked the BET to take that much in local revenue and transfer it to the school department. Now, even though the $159,000,000 is a lot less than 2/3 of the total amount of revenue the city received (it is, in actuality, about 54% of the City’s non-grant revenues), it still represents a considerable sacrifice from the taxpayers and every penny needs to be accounted for strictly.

  27. LWitherspoon

    @Steve Colarossi
    Thank you for sharing that number with us. What is the dollar amount that the BET proposes to give the Board of Ed this year?
    Regarding your 54% statistic, does that include capital spending? Any idea what the percentage would be if capital spending were taken into account?

  28. Bryan Meek

    The city’s FY 2012 annual report is a legal document. It shows $225 million in expenditures. Ignoring building additions and depreciation and focusing only on operational budgets less grants clearly demonstrates a mindset of living rent free. That also has to change. It is not sustainable.

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