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Stressed Norwalk Council sets budget cap

Tuesday’s Common Council meeting on Zoom.

A screenshot posted on Facebook after Tuesday’s Common Council meeting. “Remember this during the next election time. These are the only council members that supported an increase to 5.4% to the public schools of norwalk. So disappointed,” a parent wrote.

NORWALK, Conn. — Common Council members on Tuesday padded their proposed budget cap just a bit to allow room for two additional Recreation and Parks employees, while denying pleas from parents for more school district funding.

Only four Council members voted in favor of an amendment proposed by Nora Niedzielski-Eichner (D-At Large), to raise the cap to allow an additional $1.9 million for Norwalk Public Schools, above what discussed last week. The second proposed amendment, introduced by John Kydes (D-District C) with field maintenance in mind, added $82,000 to the budget and passed 9-6.

The resultant budget cap is $414,199,874. Expected intergovernmental grants of $22,385,828 make the total appropriation $391,814,046.

Council members were careful to spell out that the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) has the final say on where City funds go. While they said they didn’t “flat fund” the schools last year, that the BET cut the allocation from what the Council allowed room for, Niedzielski-Eichner reminded parents that at last year’s budget cap meeting Kydes led an amendment to cut the then-recommended cap by $1 million. This was specifically done with the intention of reducing the schools funding from local tax dollars in favor of using federal COVID-19 relief funding.

The strain on the Council members was palpable, even through a Zoom interface, and tensions were voiced at the end of the meeting.

Council member Dominique Johnson (D-At Large), who voted against both amendments, said she’s been through setting a budget cap three times and “this process is broken.”

“I’m wondering what our plan is the efficiency study reveals the need for even greater funding for both the City and the schools,” she said. “We would not have to be having such hard conversations if the State taxation laws were more in our favor here in Norwalk. Hartford does limit our ability to raise additional money.”

 

Parents speak out

Last week, the Council Finance Committee voted to add an additional $1.68 million to the recommended budget cap, allowing $1,563,000 for NPS and $177,821 for the City.

This changed the recommended budget hike for the schools from a 3.75% increase to a 4.5% increase, which school administration say is the minimum needed to meet contractual obligations. An additional employee for Recreation and Parks was also mentioned, a staffer to look after field maintenance, who would be approved for overtime as needed.

On Tuesday, 16 parents spoke to the Council, unanimously saying 4.5% isn’t enough. City Clerk Irene Dixon also listed 42 folks who sent the Council emails 42 emails, at least four of whom also spoke in person.

Julie Fleming asked for “adequate” funding; she specified she meant “adequate rather than increased because the 4.5% increase “still falls far short of our community’s needs given the continued impacts of the COVID 19 pandemic… It tells our children, teachers and parents that we expect them to continue to struggle along because we have more important priorities.”

“Over the last 10 years, the City has only met the Board of Ed full budget request once,” Jody Sattler said.

“People are currently still moving to Norwalk and buying property, at elevated prices. And a factor is that our taxes are still less than neighboring towns. Even with the looming revaluation, this is our new normal,” Gloria Neiderer said. “If you are still concerned about higher taxes, I can’t imagine we can’t come up with a solution for tax breaks to help alleviate the burden of those who are struggling.”

“When you kept funding flat last year you were told that that would necessarily mean a much larger increase this year,” Ana Tabachneck wrote in an email. “I don’t think the BOE would ask for more than it needs. Not everything needs to be a negotiation. What I’ve seen with the NPS funding for the last few years seems like a race to the bottom.”

 

More money for NPS?

While the case to give NPS a 5.4% increase has pivoted on an incubator for the hoped-for South Norwalk neighborhood school, Niedzielski-Eichner said the additional $1.9 million would “begin the process of transferring back to the operating budget certain crucial functions, namely, in this instance, the 21 social workers that were moved from the operating budget to the ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund) grant, as a way of mitigating the tax consequences for Norwalk residents.”

“As we all know, those are positions that are crucial to our school and crucial to our students,” she said.

“If this was a normal year, going from 0% to 4.5% would be a huge win for our schools. That is not a normal year. There has not been a normal two years,” Council member Jenn McMurrer (D-District C) said. “I think the South Norwalk school incubator is a wonderful idea. But we don’t own the property and we don’t have a date for when we will break ground. I have pushed for more money to cover the specialists … and our children’s social emotional needs.”

Council President Tom Livingston (D-District E) said Council members have to be cognizant that “every increase we have, no matter how good our intentions, may hurt some people somehow in terms of additional costs.”

Council member Diana Révolus (D-District B) said she used to be one of the parents calling to urge more school funding. As a Council member now, she “actually got to understand and see the differences and how this affects not only our children, but the community and the families who house our kids, who need to support our kids.”

“I am not for even the 4.5 I think it’s something that would be very painful to a lot of our a lot of our community,” Révolus said.

Council Majority Leader Barbara Smyth (D-At Large), a retired teacher, said she used to lead rallies for school funding but “for families who are really struggling, (a tax increase) means a choice between maybe buying formula for the baby or you know, feeding their family.” It also might increase evictions and, “I’m saying this on behalf of the many homeless students who’ve sat in my classrooms.”

The vote was:

Against allowing for a 5.4% increase for NPS

  • Greg Burnett (D-At Large)
  • Josh Goldstein (D-At Large)
  • David Heuvelman (D-District A)
  • Dominique Johnson (D-At Large)
  • Thomas Keegan (R-District D)
  • John Kydes (D-District C)
  • Tom Livingston (D-District E)
  • Diana Révolus (D-District B)
  • Lisa Shanahan (D-District E)
  • Barbara Smyth (D-At Large)
  • Darlene Young (D-District B)

 

In favor of the additional $1.9 million

  • Heidi Alterman (D-District D)
  • Nicol Ayers (D-District A)
  • Nora Niedzielski-Eichner (D-At Large)
  • Jenn McMurrer (D-District C)

 

‘Hypocritical’… ‘make a plea’

Mayor Harry Rilling recommended last week that Recreation and Parks be funded for an additional employee.

Kydes thanked him for that, but said, “I think we need to take this one step further…as someone who considers themselves very fiscally responsible, I believe improving the maintenance of our turf fields will ultimately save any expenditures and any increase that we may see now.

Johnson said she was struggling with sending directives to the BET, “especially given the lack of time and data to support any sort of assurances and guarantees even that this would be money that would go to that.”

“I know that we haven’t added staff to our city employment line in a very, very long time,” Council member Lisa Shanahan (D-District E) said. “But if COVID taught us anything, the need for usable fields, and outdoor recreation has only become more and more important to every Norwalk citizen and especially the children…. We can make a plea today. And hopefully, they’re listening, that we really do need more help on the fields.”

Smyth said she’d like to see what newly hired Norwalk Recreation and Parks Director Robert Stowers can do with one additional employee.

“It is a small ask. I agree with that. But it is, you know, another bump in taxes. And I think just this year, we need to be a little more careful,” Smyth said.

“We’re growing as a city and how a city looks affects how people feel. And that’s, a lot of people make decisions on that sort of thing,” said Recreation and Parks Committee Chairwoman Darlene Young (D-District B). “…I really don’t believe that the overtime budget is going to suffice or be enough for us to really get the job done, the way that it needs to be done.”

Council member Josh Goldstein (D-At Large) said, “We just took a vote a few minutes ago in which many of the cited reasons had to do with an increased tax burden. And I realized that the claimed amounts here are quite different. … I find it is hypocritical to do such an about face on this specific issue.”

Council member David Heuvelman (D-District A) and Livingston agreed.

“I just can’t do it,” Livingston said.

Council Finance Committee Chairman Greg Burnett (D-At Large) spoke of a “laundry list of add-ons.”

“The original recommendation, I just stated, is a result of many hours of discussion…. To now, and I use the term ‘nickel and dime’ that recommendation, I just don’t feel that’s appropriate,” Burnett said.

The vote was:

In favor of Kydes’ amendment

  • Heidi Alterman (D-District D)
  • Nicol Ayers (D-District A)
  • Nora Niedzielski-Eichner (D-At Large)
  • Thomas Keegan (R-District D)
  • John Kydes (D-District C)
  • Jenn McMurrer (D-District C)
  • Diana Révolus (D-District B)
  • Lisa Shanahan (D-District E)
  • Darlene Young (D-District B)

Against the Kydes amendment

  • Greg Burnett (D-At Large)
  • Josh Goldstein (D-At Large)
  • David Heuvelman (D-District A)
  • Tom Livingston (D-District E)
  • Barbara Smyth (D-At Large)
  • Dominique Johnson (D-At Large)

 

Kydes murmured “Wow” when Heuvelman voted no, prompting the latter to shake his head.

 

Closing comments

After the vote, which set the cap, Council member Nicol Ayers (D-District A) cautioned her colleagues against discouraging people from making amendments because, “We are elected to push back.”

“The Recreation and Parks department needed this more than I could even express the words,” she said. “I am aware of a process of the process of the city, that the BET will do what the BET is a legally required to do. But when you stand up, and you decide to make a stand for those things that you feel are important, can’t nobody make you feel wrong.”

Johnson said Norwalk needs to “reinvigorate conversations” about the State ECS (Educational Cost Sharing) formula.

“I know there’s some bills in the Senate coming through to give us some assistance to our young people in schools for mental and physical health. We have to support those and contact our delegation on that,” Johnson said.

Smyth made “a plea” to NPS Central Office, saying, “Please take care of your teachers. They have suffered through COVID greatly. But what they’re suffering with now seems to extend well beyond COVID. They are feeling burned out. They’re feeling overwhelmed, overworked and undervalued. And when teachers are feeling that way, they can’t be at their best.”

 

About that efficiency study

Results of the efficiency study looking at both the City and Board of Education operating budget are expected to be made public soon. Rilling said the City has a draft of the report on its end of operations.

“I will say that some of the things I saw on there, I was extremely impressed,” he said. “I think as I get through it, I think it’s somewhere around, the city-side, is somewhere around 200 pages. But when I got started going through it, I was very, very impressed with the thoroughness and the detail, the attention to detail in our report, and I’m sure that the public schools report is the same.”

Correction, 10:47 p.m.: Diana Révolus voted for the second amendment.

10 comments

Sue Haynie February 23, 2022 at 6:20 am

The parent who said that Norwalk’s taxes are less than our neighboring towns is misinformed.
Norwalk’s property values are Less than our neighboring towns and Norwalk’s mill rate is much higher than most of them:
Mill Rates:
Norwalk 24
Greenwich: 11.5
Westport: 18
New Canaan: 18.16
Wilton: 27.8
Darien: 16.8

Jo Bennett February 23, 2022 at 8:01 am

Cautiously hopeful that our CC has been paying attention to the keen counsel made recently by Lisa Brinton and others on this embarrassment that our schools have become. Bussing 16 kids (assuming on the basis of their race) to school with our wealthy neighbors won’t fix this. Do your jobs.

David Osler February 23, 2022 at 8:05 am

You got to work on spending money wisely you need to change strategies come up with new plans more efficient ways of doing things things with a much greater return on investment if you’re not going to get a return on investment and it needs to be done do it cheaply something we can get longer benefits of do it right. That goes for all departments not just the schools if you were looking at putting money into school trade programs as a taxpayer I might be more interested in it but our schools aren’t suffering from lack of funds they’re suffering from meeting community needs. There are kids in the high school that can’t do basic math the type of stuff I expect a fifth grade to do you need parental involvement you need to stop ignoring homeowners our government for the last several years has catered to developers that don’t contribute anything to the city aside from some buildings that cost the taxpayers more than they are worth. One of the best programs that was available in the city was the sailing program they did a great job on a nothing budget with a zero margin and that wasn’t good enough for the people in town hall I don’t know why because you are a non-profit organization that runs a city to do things on a shoestring budget properly and well you have access to talented willing to volunteer time and knowledge use them

Piberman February 23, 2022 at 11:10 am

Not a single Council member commented on why despite generous funding most of our City’s public school grads fail to meet CT Edu Dept standards. Not a single member commented publicly why the BOE pays the highest Supt salary in CT for a failing public school system lacking any public plans to secure major improvement. Failing public schools are a major City embarrassment. Our BOE lacks the ability to properly oversee our school system and our highly paid school administrators have no plans for major improvement. If the Council won’t hold the BOE/administrators responsible for running a credible public school system who wills ?

An ongoing tragedy for Norwalk that once had an admired and successful public school system when we had 2 vigorous local political parities. Under One Party Rule what is the future for our failing pubic schools ? More of the same ? Is there no elected official in our City demanding we improve our public school management ?
Or are they hoping no one will notice our schools are failing to properly educate our children ?
Especially for its school kids. Is our future always a failing school system ?

John O'Neill February 23, 2022 at 1:21 pm

What makes me laugh about these people whining about the lack of funding for the schools is they’re barking up the wrong tree. THESE same people continue to send the same messengers to Hartford. Those officials keep coming back to our community with crap. In my opinion, IF it was up to Common Council Nora N-E (short version is easier than long version) we’d increase taxes and she still wouldn’t be happy. I repeat my comments from last week. IF you buy a house in Norwalk instead of Darien you’re getting a discount. If you want a Darien education either: 1) Move to Darien or 2) Vote for State Reps who bring home the bacon from Hartford. I’m betting most of those complaining about funding shortfalls have voted for the same people to represent us in Hartford since they’ve lived in Norwalk.

Dominique Johnson gets today’s prize for most intelligent comment last night:
We would not have to be having such hard conversations if the State taxation laws were more in our favor here in Norwalk. Hartford does limit our ability to raise additional money.” — My only concern is she may be voting for those same reps who have never bring back enough dollars to Norwalk. How ironic is that??

Jim Tru February 23, 2022 at 3:54 pm

Why no mention of the BOE holding the current superintendent accountable for spending?

Maybe eliminate some of the newly created six-figure administrative roles.. there is so much waste going on in NPS under the current superintendent.

Thank you to the council for trying to keep the burden to taxpayers at minimum. Expecting taxpayers to come out of pocket an extra $200 per year, every year is insane.

Piberman February 23, 2022 at 9:12 pm

No amount of additional funding will ensure most Norwalk students meet CT Edu Dept graduation guidelines. Neither the BOE nor the high paid school administrators have a public plan to secure that goal. Pretty embarrassing. As is paying CT’s highest salary for a Supt overseeing an acknowledged failing school system.

How do we explain the very large differences in housing values between Norwalk and the 5 surrounding towns ? Superb public schools where virtually every student meets CT Edu Dept graduation guidelines and secures a 4 yr college degree comes to mind.

Norwalk homeowners seem content to pay high property taxes to fund our failing public schools. Many of our 20,000 odd homeowners are paying over $10,000. And a surprising number near or above $20,000.

Some years ago the 2nd highest valued home in New Canaan was purchased for $12 million. Annual taxes were under $100,000. There’s no shortage of similar examples in the surrounding towns showing the valuation/tax disparities with Norwalk. Good schools encourage higher home valuations.

High Norwalk property taxes relative to their valuations have another deleterious effect on our City. Retired homeowners leave owing to our high property taxes.
Making our community even more transient. Studies by CPEC in Hartford some years ago found Norwalk to be Fairfield County’s most transient city. And that was before the surge in renters.

So failing schools harm our students with lost opportunities. And harm homeowners with depressed housing values. In our One Party City where renters are about to overtake homeowners who will stand up demanding better governance ?

John Tobin February 24, 2022 at 6:12 am

Imagine how stressed members of the Common Council would be if they actually held in person Council meetings instead of still hiding behind the Zoom camera.

Mya February 24, 2022 at 10:18 am

The operating budget is still not published on the City’s website. I also did not see it published in the Hour notices where it has been accessible every year.

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