Seen and Heard in Norwalk: Boring HR, flaming BOE

Seen in Norwalk: The Board of Estimate and Taxation. Five people spoke at Thursday’s public hearing, which lasted half an hour.

NORWALK, Conn. – Here are some items of interest that were seen or heard recently in Norwalk:

New HR director keeps it low key

Mayor Harry Rilling has appointed a new personnel director to replace the departed James Haselkamp. The appointment will be voted on at Tuesday’s council meeting.

While Googling Haselkamp will turn up a story about a lawsuit with some salacious details, Googling proposed Norwalk replacement Emmet Hibson will turn up the New Haven Independent headline: “City Official Nabbed On Motor Vehicle Charges.” The first comment on the story is “Is this really news?”

Hibson ran a red light. He was stopped by a police officer who discovered that the registration on Hibson’s Mercedes Benz had expired. He paid the fine.

Such drama.

Good thing Oak Hills is on a shoestring?

Oak Hills Park Authority members said this week that they expect to get through the winter without asking for money from the city, a reference to the controversial $150,000 bridge loan the city got last year.

Seen in Norwalk: Wasted electricity? A television left on Thursday in City Hall Room 101.

Director of Management and Budgets Bob Barron gave a similar financial forecast at the March 3 Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) meeting – revenues are similar to last year but accounts payable are way down, he said, quoting information he had gotten from Oak Hills Executive Director Shelley Guyer.

“So basically, what they told us they were going to get from the bridge loan (a one-time infusion of cash to make it through a tough period last year),” worked for them and they expect to be OK this year, BET member Erik Anderson said.

“Right,” Barron said. “I still think this is on a shoestring, for, you know, an organization of this size. But you know what? I would rather they be on a shoestring and ask when they need it, which they did last year, rather than over-fund it and then create an artificial surplus.”

BOE a cut above

Board of Education Chairman Mike Lyons spoke to the BET on Wednesday in support of the 2014-15 proposed operating budget.

Afterward, he sent an email to NancyOnNorwalk:

“Interesting fact I picked up at the BET hearing tonight. Here are the percentage budget increases for the major city budget categories:

BoE – 2.6 percent

Police / Fire – 5.9 percent

Pensions – 19.3 percent

Public Works – 4.7 percent

Parks and Rec – 6.7 percent

General Gov’t. – 3.2 percent

Finance – 4.4 percent

Grants – 6 percent

Health – 3.4 percent

“Notice which increase is lowest? Despite adding teachers, aides, staff for the P-Tech Academy at NHS, K-5 literacy specialist, literacy directors at each elementary school (replacing APs), revamping of curriculum and HR departments, and fully implementing the Common Core – we came in at the lowest increase in any major category of the city budget. That is a record to be proud of!”

Supporting Manny Rivera

Lyons pulled out figures in Tuesday’s board meeting to show the effectiveness of a controversial K-5 English Language curriculum in a New York school system, figures he said support Superintendent Manny Rivera’s recommendation to possibly use that curriculum in one or two Norwalk schools as a pilot program.

Migdalia Rivas asked why, if the curriculum is that great, are there no studies done in Connecticut schools. Rivera answered that question.

“They’re not as smart as we are,” Rivera said. “Connecticut has one of the largest achievement gaps in the nation. One of the largest achievement gaps in the nation. So I’m trying to advance a whole set of recommendations and a curriculum that has been implemented elsewhere with very similar demographics – 12 percent ELL, 17 percent, 2 or 3 percentage points higher because of special ed … very similar demographics in terms of children and makeup, to change that. That’s what this is all about. This is about changing that. The rest of Connecticut I don’t care about. I care about Norwalk.”

South Norwalk woman closes her own achievement gap

One of the public speakers at the beginning of that meeting was a Bouton Street woman who spoke with a Spanish accent.

“I have two boys. The two boys went to the Brookside. One is still in the Brookside. I want to share my experience,” she said.

“My son, the first one, I never was involved in his education. I didn’t even know when there was an open house in school, I never went. So these boys, latest one, is special needs, so I have to get involved. I went involved, I notice that my son that I have been involved, his grades are even better than the other one. I never was involved so I see a big difference. I compared the grades.

“Now my boy who was a Brookside he is an A grade student. Is very good but in the past I never was involved. I didn’t know what was an open house. I didn’t understand a lot of things.

“A few days ago I was talking to my friends from my street and they said they don’t know what is an open house so I started explaining to them what is was.

“That was what I wanted to share. The difference. I have been in both places.”

She got applause for that.

Jack’s back

After a prolonged absence from the headlines, the “old” Jack Chiaramonte stepped up to the plate Tuesday.

Board of Education member Jack Chiaramonte.

Yes, Chiaramonte was physically absent from the Board of Education over the summer as he was out of town, peddling his jewelry on Martha’s Vineyard. But the blunt-talking former BOE chairman has been something close to invisible even as he sits in the council chambers with his comrades, having been mostly silent since Mike Lyons was initially elected chairman a year and a half ago.

Jack was back Tuesday. After more than an hour of questioning from Migdalia Rivas and comments from Shirley Mosby in resistance to Rivera’s curriculum recommendation, Chiaramonte said it was time for change.

“The sad thing is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result,” he said. “As long as I have been on this board I have been hearing about we have to reach out to the parents who are not heard, who are not heard. We heard a mother coming up here tonight saying her first child – she never got involved. How are we going to do it? Are we going to go to her house and drag her to these meetings? She wasn’t involved. Again, why would I want to hear from somebody who is not involved in the school system? They have to show some concern for the education of their kid. OK? And if they’re not coming forward for it is that the kind of person that I want to hear input coming in? I don’t. I want to see proven facts of what is happening, to bring a better education to our kids.

“We are failing. The United States is failing! Compared to the rest of the world. I am tired of doing things the same way. That is one of the reasons I supported Dr. Rivera coming here and I wholeheartedly support this program. I thank you for all of the hard work you have done.”

Mosby, Lyons agree on one point

Lyons called the vote on the curriculum probably the biggest decision that has been made since he came on the board in November 2011.

“I agree that this is big,” Mosby said. “That is why we have to make sure that it is done right for all children — all children, and not let it fall on the backs of the kids that are considered at risk. As I stated before, it should fall back on consistency and definitely make sure that all children are on the same page. With minimum input from the feeder schools, I do have concerns. I just want to make sure that’s out there, that I understand that about where some people may feel that, because the people are not at the table, it doesn’t mean that we have to sit there and take it out on their children. It is our job in the Norwalk Public Schools System to make sure that all children are educated. Whether or not the parents are at the table. It is our responsibility as Board of Ed members representing all children that these kids get some type of education.”

Misery shared

Rivas took the lead of the resistance to Rivera’s plan. Lyons let her speak again and again, finally drawing a “Can we vote?” comment from Mike Barbis, and at least one “Oh, c’mon” from the audience.

Rivas defended the emotionality of her position.

“I know from firsthand experience that it’s not working and it’s difficult in the situation that I am in,” she said. “I congratulate the board members who have children who have high honors. It’s wonderful to feel that. I would like to feel that, too. I want my children helped in school, too. But it’s difficult for me because of the position I am sitting in. I can’t say ‘help my child’ because I am a board member. The reason why I speak like this, I am speaking from my heart. That parents are not accepted in schools. I have not been accepted. When people recognize – they don’t recognize me, they don’t put the name with the face. But it shouldn’t have to be that way. ‘Oh, she’s a board member, let’s treat her this way.’ No. I am in the community, I am part of Norwalk, I pay my taxes. My children go to school. I want my children to be successful. I am a caring parent… I am not doing this for people to get upset. I’m doing this because I want to make sure it is done right. Because my children are a part of what is not working. I can speak on that.”

Seen in Norwalk: Mayor Harry Rilling and Board of Estimate and Taxation Chairman Jim Clark listen to Diane Lauricella ask for cuts in the operating budget Thursday.


15 responses to “Seen and Heard in Norwalk: Boring HR, flaming BOE”

  1. Rose Bud

    Really gratifying to see that the Rilling PR Department, otherwise known as NON, is running full-tilt. Harry is pretty, Jack is ugly, HRdirector crimes…meh.

  2. piberman

    Even those of us who admire and appreciate the renaissance of the BOE under the leadership of Mike Lyons, the centrality of supporting a vigorous public school system and building community support behind our new Superintendent can take exception to inferences about budget
    comparisons suggesting our NPSS is being “underfunded”. By any reasonable standard Norwalk has “overfunded” the NPSS in recent decades. That is the clear message from the recent Arbitration Panel Report identifying Norwalk school teachers as being the 5th best paid in CT. And, its not a new development. By any of the commonly used measures of Norwalk’s mean, median or household income Norwalk’s our locally support of education is among the very highest in CT.

    By and large those historic outlays have been allocated towards higher teacher salaries, not larger numbers of teachers administrators. And, even if our NPSS budget remained unchanged for the next 5 or 10 years Norwalk would still be “overfunding” its PSS relative to any of the commonly used expected measures of incomes. Simply put, for the foreseeable future Norwalk will remain among the state’s top spenders on education from homeowners/renters. We may disagree about any other facet of supporting the NPSS. But not about the locally sourced tax burden relative to our local incomes. Unless we choose simply to ignore available data from CPEC, CT and various Government data bases.

    The next point is that our historic overspending on the NPSS has had major and complex consequences for the community. By and large they have not been positive for the community as a whole. While the interactions are complex there is no doubt among knowledgeable observers that our education overspending relative to locally sourced incomes has negatively affected our local residential and business property values. Even our City employees en mass have largely vacated Norwalk owing to the twin demons of punitive property taxes and stagnant property values. In fact, Norwalk is experiencing an unprecedented post-War population transformation as higher income property owners increasingly are being replaced with transient renters.

    And, that will continue not matter what happens to the NPSS budget in the near term, which political party reigns supreme and even independent of whether redevelopment ever “takes off”. Simply put, neither the NPSS, the City nor property values will be measurably and importantly affected by whether the school budget increases by 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 percent over each of the next several years. Or even if remains flat. Or declines marginally.

    The facts on the ground are that Norwalk will continue to have among the very highest paid set of school teachers in CT over the foreseeable future. With or without going to arbitration, with or without the NFT continuing to play a hostile/positive in City politics and independent of the composition and direction of the BOE. Chastising our elected political leadership or even BOE members doesn’t change the “degrees of educational freedom” available to us.

    What does matter is how much more skillfully we as a community can use its available resources to their maximum effectiveness. Here we have both advantages and disadvantages. Hiring a nationally prominent Superintendent who understands the complex “public education business” is the advantage. Plus a BOE that on balance that mostly meets the commonly accepted standards of behavior.

    But there are two awesome disadvantages. First, the community as a whole including its professionals is not in the forefront of the awesome technological challenges and opportunities shaking the very foundations across every spectrum of education. For example, college Boards (both private and public) commonly discuss how they will transition to much smaller physical campus footprints over the next decade as the use of web based learning explodes. Anyone who has traveled especially to the newly developing areas such as Africa can only be impressed by the awesome explosion of education taking place outside conventional public school facilities. In many respects the public school of the future is the “tablet”. By inference much of Norwalk’s existing public school infrastracture is technologically obsolete.

    So what some may say. That’s why we hired a Superintendent. That’s myopic. Its not well known but Norwalk and to a larger degree the surrounding towns have a variety of nationally and internationally prominent software high tech firms. By and large their capabilities remain either unknown or unused by the BOE and the local education community. How do I know ? Because the CEO of one of these international hi tech Norwalk based treasures has long been my best friend and varied efforts to engage the BOE in utilizing the potential volunteer efforts have not been successful. Here we have some of the most awesome technological capabilities of global high tech right in our local backyard and no one is asking for major help. True enough some would say our NPSS has a “hi-tech officer”. Yes, but they’re decades behind compared to exploding hi-tech
    private capabilities.

    Now historically even when the NPSS has been shown to lack the most elemental financial safeguards or basic accountability the BOE has refused to form outside advisory groups of local expert citizens. Searching for a Supt. is a modest exception. And City government has the same myopic indifference. Witness the BET’s appalling absence of major league financial qualifications.

    If we’re going to make use of the local national and international capable hi-tech talent on a volunteer basis we have to ask for help. The BOE has to make the call ! That means a changing a major mind set from hiring the Supt. and letting the Supt. manage. The BOE really does need to close up shop for several meetings and sit on meetings of our neighboring towns to see and learn and how they are using their available hi-tech resources.

    While the first disadvantage facing the NPSS is near term tractable given a major change in how the BOE utilizes available hi-tech locally sourced expertise the second is generational. Simply put our diversity based population that form the majority of our students must become much more integrated into the civic decision making interactions within our City. No one can read BOE member Rivas’ remarks can doubt her sincerity and their relevance. The facts are that many of our most recent newcomers come from backgrounds and cultures of very limited public participation in local affairs, schools, etc. Asking diversity parents to get “more involved”in our NPSS really misses the point. As does demanding that the NPSS “reach out”. By every measurable point our diversity citizenry is under represented throughout our City. It’s not a “fault” but a fact of life and can only be overcome with time and effort. And will certainly take a generation or even longer to make powerful progress.

    Here again there’s an opportunity for the BOE to change “business as usual”. Informally I’ve long advocated the Supt. and key admiistrators “take a holiday” and spend time in community outreach. There’s no shortages of churches, houses of worship, local organizations with which to receive invitations and send out the clarion call – “need your help”, “adopt a school or a class grade or provide tutor support especially after hours or doing vacations. And if we’re really serious we ought to rethink the conventional wisdom of school busing that inescapably separates parents from local school participation.

    Why do all this work and redirect attention from the inevitable budget battles involving the largest political constitutency in the City – the parents – and get behind an effort to use local based hi tech software talent of the highest quality ? Precisely because what has made Norwalk a “special community” as the only well integrated major community in CT has been lost and needs be recaptured so that our newer entrants from different and diverse cultures can have the same chances for realizing the American Dream as earlier citizens have had. Those of us who have realized the American Dream have both an opportunity to enhance and make possible its availability to our newer cultures that are creating a newer much more diverse City right before our eyes. Anyone who walks the Calf Pasture Park beaches on a spring or summer’s night can only marvel at the cacophony of tongues.

    Rather than fight amongst ourselves for the NPSS to the last dollar budget we’d have much better success reaching out to make use of the best locally available technologies here almost for the asking and taking the BOE on the road. Would it be so bad to have BOE meetings in various churches, houses of worship, community places – out where the people who aren’t accustomed to visiting City Hall – so that the “invitation carpet” is fully laid out ? Would it be so terrible if the Supt. was invited to speak for our locally diverse community groups on Sunday mornings ? From past experiences the results would be awesome.

    In closing simply saying to our diversity community – “the door is open” – just isn’t good enough given their cultural heritages. But if we’re to get real “top dollar” from our highly paid school teachers who mostly live outside our City – that’s precisely what we need to do. Move heaven and earth to do everything we can do to encourage much more active participation by the dominant ethnic communities with our NPSS.

    We have a great advantage of the highly successful business and professional diversity role models both living and working in Norwalk and nearby. Some of these are among the top ranked software professionals anywhere. Some would like to help. But the the BOE needs offer the modalities for them to participate. And we have to move heaven and earth to encouage, cajole and do everything for all our diverse ccommunity parents to engage our NPSS. Of course, there will always be some who claim that they clawed their way up on their merits utilizing what was available in their day. But the facts are that its harder for newcomers given the extraordinary advances in technology to jump on the ladder of future success. It begins in our NPSS. We spend the dollars. More than we should. But we’re not getting the results we want.

  3. You can always tell when Nancy doesn’t like the person she is writing about. Before the election, she would use snarky and insulting adjectives to describe anything republican and moccia (now that his royal highness rilling is in office and up to no good shenanigans of his own, still no investigative or insulting writings on his behalf).
    Now you can see that Nancy doesn’t like Jack C. – how transparent Nancy, how transparent.

  4. All these extra expenses to put EVERYTHING into dual language (Spanish) and YET these parents STILL DON”T READ ANYTHING SENT HOME?
    I guess they really do want the city to bend over backwards for them and hold their hand through their children’s education…

  5. Mike Mushak

    I read the article twice to try to find disparaging remarks NON makes about Jack Chiaramonte, as two commenters above stated. I read a factual account of his absence last year for personal reasons and behavior since returning, nothing horrible there, and his intelligent comments about the new program and how hard it is to force parents to be involved in their children’s education . I don’t see anything negative in any of his comments or NON’s reporting of them . If anything, it’s just that Jack is back. I say halleluia to Jack, and even if I don’t always agree with him he’s a great guy and is fed up with how things are in Norwalk and has tried to change things. I can relate to that!

    1. Mark Chapman

      @ Mike Mushak

      The reality is that Nancy also likes Jack and has a cordial relationship with him. His uncharacteristic silence in public meetings had been noted by various people (including, offline, by us), which is why Nancy felt it was worth noting in Seen & Heard when the “old Jack” resurfaced. And, while it likely escaped the attention of the chronic NoN critic above, we did not go after Jack, as was done elsewhere, for his absences from meetings last summer while he was on Martha’s Vineyard tending to his shop. He participated electronically. Volunteers need to make a living, after all.

  6. “peddling” his wares is a favorable statement? Nice try.

    1. Mark Chapman

      @Irish Girl

      Oh please. You are now officially jumping the shark toward trolldom. And we do not allow trolls. If you have something constructive to say — even in your borderline policy-violating manner — say it. But don’t waste bandwidth this drivel.

  7. piberman

    Irish girl:

    Yes, we’ll bend over backwards because times are a changing and even smart kids from non-diversity backgrounds have a tough time climbing the ladder. Or even getting on the ladder with a college degree. Technology is changing our universe at a breath taking pace.

    What we don’t know is how much pushing and screaming it takes to have our diversity community adopt the old fashioned “immigrant mindset” that made public education the path out of the “wilderness”. Take a look please at the Census data and see the numbers of non-citizens, college degrees by ethnic diversity, etc. Or numbers of diversity owned businesses in town.

    If we do business as usual we have only one result. Ever higher salaries for our highly paid school teachers and continued deplorable results for most of our diverity students. And many others.

    Our goal ought to be encouraging a community where most students can have a reasonable chance of aspiring to decent jobs, have a good shot at going to college beyond NCC, establish a business here in town and raise their families here and work the American dream.

    Telling them that we did it after fighting a World War doesn’t catch the mustard. Or that we did it without subsidies. Times change. Its tougher for everyone to get on the ladder. Even more so without the traditional immigrant mindsight without a well established immigrant community giving some occasional life support. Or squishy politics.

    There still are substantial numbers of us long term residents that over came almost unbelievable hardships to get up on the ladder. And by and large my hunch is that most us old timers want to make it much easier for the newer groups of residents to catch the train. Not harder because what we did. But because its the right thing to do. I started up the ladder working from a lumber stevedore on the tough Brooklyn docks while a teenager. I wouldn’t want anyone to have to go that tough route. Certainly not working several jobs to get through collge on scholarship.

    Most of the folks I met here 4 decades ago went through the War, didn’t go to college and by dint of hard work succeeded as citizens. Some have amazing stories of real grit. Without complaints. We have different cultural and employment conditions. But why not make it easier for everyone to succeed. Kids don’t choose their parents. We fund school systems to make it possible for kids to get on the ladder. In these days we need some grease. We have legions of recent college grads working in fast food. I never met anyone who aspired to fast food armed with a college degree.

    Call us old timers “softies” or “lefties”. We may be proud of our personal accomplishments but not too proud to make it much easier for others. America’s greatness isn’t dependent on standing on other’s shoulders. Its giving everyone a real “hand”. Occasionally even those who don’t deserve one.

  8. Yvonne Lopaur

    Director of Management and Budgets Bob Barron’s statement that he would rather the Oak Hills Park Authority (OHPA) “be on a shoestring and ask when they need it, which they did last year, rather than over-fund it and then create an artificial surplus” shows the lax attitude of the City toward lending money to the OHPA. Just ask and Mr. Barron will do his utmost to see that the OHPA receives taxpayer dollars so it can continue to operate a money-losing golf course. In the meantime our schools, libraries, police department, etc. have to justify every penny they get? Strikes me Mr. Barron has a distorted sense of how the taxpayers of Norwalk want to see their hard earned dollars spent.

  9. Longtime Norwalk Resident

    Two things: First, I agree with the previous poster. It seems the city has no problems pouring money into Oak Hills to support a losing operation for the benefit of a few golfers.

    Second, if he could, Berman would find a way to link global warming with teacher salaries. Enough already.

  10. Don Chiodo

    Not sure I understand why Mr. Lyons is proud of the 2.6%? Since the BOE budget is ~$165MM that means an increase of over $4MM. It is a lower percentage on a higher expense number. Pensions might have gone up 19.3% but it is on a base of ~$9.6MM so it is only $1.8MM in real dollars.

  11. Mike Lyons

    Don, everyone measures relative sizes by percentages, at every level of government, in the performance of the stock market, in changes in profits at corporations, etc. Why you think its a problem for me to do the same with the BoE budget is perplexing.

    And I AM proud that we’ve lowered the size of our budget request changes by 60% over the last two years, through getting much better control over our costs and our financial operations, and yet we are still able to make substantial improvements in our educational program.

    Oftentimes the comments on this blog remind me of the old adage of “the perfect being the enemy of the good.” Even good progress at BoE, because it falls short of perfection, is derided here by comparing it to a mythical world where school budgets never go up (I won’t hold my breath waiting for someone to give me examples from towns around here where there are perpetually flat or declining school budgets).

    I’ll keep trying anyway.

  12. Don Chiodo

    Mike – my point wasn’t that you all haven’t done a good job from a financial operations/cost control perspective. My point is that by stacking that percentage against the others it looks like the BOE increase was minimal when in fact it represented over 50%(4.6MM) of the $9MM increase YOY 2014-2015 Proposed Budget expense from $309MM to $318MM.

  13. Mike Lyons

    No disagreement, Don. The schools are about 60% of the overall budget, so being a bit over 50% of the budget increase would, I think, be expected.

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