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Wants versus needs

Common Council member Jenn McMurrer is a Democrat representing District C. (Contributed)

Another budget season is upon us, and this is arguably shaping up to be the hardest one yet.

Every year we have the same debate as to how much each City department needs and how much we can afford without raising taxes too much. Within that debate, public education always seems to be the most heated topic. Public education is a priority for the Council and the City, but we cannot fund every ask. There are wants and needs in every city department and it is our job to prioritize those.

Last year myself and some of my colleagues tried to advocate for more money for the schools. We all asked questions of the district and the BoE, but unfortunately many of those questions went unanswered. This year, we asked more questions trying to make sense of where the money is going and where we can possibly save. But once again, our questions were not met with answers.

Knowledge is power and without information or answers, how, I ask, are we supposed to fight for more funds when we don’t know where the funds are going?  If we on the Council are not getting these answers, it’s fair to assume that the public is not getting these answers either. As individuals who were elected by the public – I believe it is our duty to be transparent on how your tax dollars are being spent.

This year, the Mayor and the City’s CFO have requested no more than a 3% increase for all City departments.

Although I anticipate there will be some fluctuation with those numbers depending on needs of City departments, Dr. Estrella originally requested a 14.9% increase and the BoE approved a 12.7% request.

Every year for the past five years (minus the year where the schools were flat funded in 2021), the City has increased the school budget. It should be noted that by law, the City can only add money to the school budget. We therefore, cannot take anything away once it has been given. BUT my problem is that every year we run into transparency issues.

Fast forward, to last year when I joined the Council. The school district requested a 9.1% increase and had paid counselors and social workers with COVID relief funds (ESSER) and talked about the financial cliff we were heading towards. The city increased their budget by 4.5%.

Along with the increases made last year not only for the schools but other City departments, we were forced to raise taxes slightly, not something we as a Council take lightly. What has been made clear to me since joining the Council, where I represent more than parents and our children, is that not everyone can pay for increased taxes. It is a real struggle.

It would be so easy if we could just write a check for everything every department in the City needs and it had little to no impact on the people we serve, but that is not how it works. We must prioritize each ask based on needs.

Despite the less than requested increase last year, NPS had a surplus of $3.3 million that was rolled over. I ask myself why there is a such a large surplus year-after-year and then increases are still requested. Where is that money going?

Because I serve as Chair of Public Safety and General Government, I am more familiar with the asks of the police and fire departments so I will share some examples forthcoming in this budget.

The police need to add dashboard cameras and body cameras because of a State Statute. This is required and therefore a need.

The fire department must replace up to $200,000 worth of protective gear that could malfunction. That is also a need.

The schools need counselors, social workers, and reading and math specialists. They need more special educators. According to NPS, 39% of middle and high school students were struggling with depression and 68% of our student body is high needs.

Every department also has wants that they ask for, which along with their needs are presented to us in line item budgets and unfortunately cuts from this category must be made to keep taxes from going up too much. Unfortunately, we do not get the same transparency from the BoE or NPS about the budget line items.

We’ve asked for this information, and we haven’t received direct answers. NPS wanted a family center. And then NPS wanted an incubator for the new SONO school. The district found money for these wants and paid for them.

I’m not saying that either one of these things is a bad idea. There are a lot of good ideas, but it doesn’t move them into the need category, they are still wants.

If I knew or believed the money requested would go towards needs not wants, I would fight harder than anyone to get them that money, but over the past year my confidence has dwindled because of the lack of transparency and the examples above.

Add to that, the morale among teachers and staff is at an all-time low with many retiring early or leaving for other districts, not all COVID-related.

New ideas and curriculum are put in place at a cost to our taxpayers often without reliable reasons or data, only to be changed again long before their shelf life has expired.

Why not put that money and the other examples of money towards needs like reading and math specialists or counselors and social workers that were otherwise in the ESSER funds? Or towards special educators that we so desperately need? It may not pay for all of it, but it would go a long way to show that we are doing everything we can to make sure our schools get what they need, then we as a city could hopefully make up some of the gaps.

Last I checked we had approximately 80 vacancies in the district, but as has happened in the past, the threat of teacher layoffs is being dangled as the only solution if the district is not fully funded. I would argue that teachers are the biggest need to keep our schools running and running well. I would ask the district to make this the last thing cut if they don’t get the $27 million requested.

Having been very involved as a parent, I often hear from parents and staff alike that say we want our kids to be able to read and write at grade level. This seems to me like a need not a want, and a very fair ask.

I have also had several parents, including myself, reach out to the BoE to ask questions only to have those questions and emails ignored. Another need is having your representatives respond to you and answer your questions or get answers to your questions.

I have always said I am not a politician. I don’t vote a certain way because someone tells me to. I don’t believe what I’m told at face value. I like to do my own research, and I don’t do it out of the desire to get re-elected. It’s not about me. It’s about the community. I want to do right by my community and that includes our children, my children, and the city’s taxpayers.

I think we need to do better. We need to work together better, have more transparency, more dialogue and teamwork. And I don’t think we can get there the way we have been going. I also don’t know how to get there, but I do know this… writing a blank check for any department and having questions without answers is not the solution.

15 comments

John O'Neill January 19, 2023 at 2:06 pm

AMEN !! The Taxpayers thank you. The Teachers thank you. The Students thank you..Sometimes a fresh perspective illuminates a an issue. One can’t solve a problem without acknowledging there is a problem. I’m sure you weren’t 100% comfortable hitting the send button on this, BUT Norwalk is happy you did.
Thank You.

Benjamin Gates January 19, 2023 at 4:06 pm

This restored article restored my faith in the Common Council.

The issue is wants vs needs and that’s very clear. Jen made multiple excellent points in this piece and I commend her for both her transparency and her ability to see the bigger picture.

Estrella and NPS have operated with almost no transparency and spend money like it is being printed in a back room at city hall. It is truly appalling. If they cant answer simple questions on budget items then NPS, and especially Estrella, deserve absolutely no funding increase. That’s the way it would work in every company in America. More importantly, if the person creating the budget cant explain budget items or at least give valuable color on them, they should be fired.

I truly thank Jen for her hard work and the hard decision to question these things when so many others don’t. I for one can sleep better as a Norwalk resident knowing that Jen sees the bigger picture and will ask the touch questions and demand transparency. At the end of the day that’s all any Norwalk taxpayer can truly want, transparency as to how money is being spent.

Kudos to you Jen. I am sure we don’t agree on everything but its certainly nice to know that someone smart like you is on the Common Council.

Jessica Garnett January 19, 2023 at 6:37 pm

I’ve been asking the city for years why we NEVER have enough money to adequately fund our schools and have NEVER gotten an answer 🤷🏻‍♀️

Schools are a personnel heavy business, what do you think gets cut when budgets are slashed???

Every year it’s the same histrionics from the CC. Aren’t you all democrats? You can’t pick up the phone or call a meeting with the members of the BoE? An OpEd telling NoN’s readers that you can’t get questions answered, really? Our mayor has a seat on the BoE, why not give him a call?

The CC forced the BoE to use ESSER funds for general operating expenses in 2021 and then wants to play dumb now.

Jessica Garnett January 19, 2023 at 6:39 pm

I wrote this last March and as predicted here we are

Page 532 & 533:
Remember this part of the Efficiency Study at Budget Time next year! It was the City, who told the BoE to use the ESSER Funds in this manner during last years budget season!
Recommendation 7-6:
Establish a joint City/NPS working group to carefully review how the ESSER funds were used and identify the areas where these funds were used to supplant ongoing operations. Once this analysis is completed, the working group should jointly recommend how to budgetarily sustain the programs that should be sustained and eliminate those that no longer require funding. Even if additional federal dollars are made available, these funds should not be used as a stopgap way to balance the budget, but rather should be used to supplement rather than supplant current programs and activities as it is intended.
FISCAL IMPACT This recommendation can be implemented with existing resources.

Jenn McMurrer January 19, 2023 at 7:49 pm

Jessica, I appreciate all opinions and thoughts on this very polarizing topic. I have had several meetings with all of those you mentioned and even some of them say they have a hard time getting answers to what seem like simple questions. You also mentioned on social media that I am talking down to the parents… I am a parent, which I think you may have forgotten. It is not easy or fun to do this job, but I ask questions of all city departments. The only difference is I get answers from other city departments and don’t from NPS. Why is that?

Bryan Meek January 19, 2023 at 8:31 pm

@JG. Governor’s order 7R on 3/31 set the course. Not to Monday morning quarterback, but in hindsight, if we had laid off “unnecessary” staff, they would have been picked up on the unemployment compensation schemes hatched under covid relief on the federal nickel not ours. Instead the Governor’s order of no layoffs of public school employees is why we are here.

To make matters worse, the 0% increased forced their hand. I’m not for the welcome center, but that is a rounding error on the total budget. Our massive RDF guarantees we won’t get bailout like the one given to Hartford for $500MM when they ran reckless before covid.

Jenn’s letter is spot on and we need to move forward with real data and real needs, forget the wants.

Tysen Canevari January 19, 2023 at 11:05 pm

While I am trying to wipe away my tears from this letter I am willing to bet your voting record coincides with Harry’s wants and not just needs! The police and fire get the bare bone minimum always while this superindentent has lost control. Her schools and their staff cant stand her but many wont speak against her for fear of retaliation. In the private sector when your performance is consistently below grade you get fired! In sports you get benched! How do we as a city put her on waivers?

Lisa Brinton January 20, 2023 at 12:45 am

Nice letter Jen.
Norwalk’s latest and deepest budget precipice has been a long time coming. Plenty of blame to go around.

In the mayor’s office, a decade of development, with overly generous tax credits & lawsuits, coupled with a lack of ordinance enforcement for overcrowded, unsafe and/or undertaxed, illegal, multifamily houses have strained our city and schools.

Hartford’s density policy came with everything but money.

On the BOE side, restorative justice, the inability for teachers to discipline, give a ‘failing grade’ and now the consideration of eliminating grades altogether is more than us ‘old school’ folks can handle.

IMHO we ‘needed’ a city wide english center to address our new language learners or a literacy center specializing in dyslexia, et. al. that could address one of the biggest contributors to special ed costs – a student’s inability to read. We did NOT need a Welcome Center, or a new Norwalk High, when we haven’t paid off the debt from the previous renovations. We didn’t need to overpay for Hatch & Bailey, after wasting millions on Ely… I could go on.

Consultants recently reported on a 63 question survey given to students on their socio-emotional well being. Maybe residents could demand we survey the Mayor, Common Council, Superintendent & BOE on their ability to correlate the budget consequences of the city’s siloed & disconnected P&Z strategy and the BOE’s budget. Now, that’s an overdue survey – by at least 10 years.

Bob Giolitto January 20, 2023 at 12:23 pm

Kudos to Jen McMurrer. If there were no author identification one would be hard pressed to determine if Jen were a Democrat or Republican…or a politician (unlike Lisa Brinton, who typically brought her own political agenda with her comment, adding issues that don’t apply). Instead of pitting one side against the other with attacks, she lays out what’s needed to get things moving. A point on dissatisfied teachers, of which there are legitimately many: teachers just can’t up and leave a school district to go to another without some serious financial burdens; they lose tenure, seniority, and could possibly earn less.

Dennis Horvath January 20, 2023 at 2:02 pm

Norwalk taxpayers are paying $20,048.00 per pupil this year without seeing real results. $20,048.00 per pupil does not make for a poorly funded school system. This amount rivals other towns around us even though our per capita income is $54,297 (data found at census.gov/quickfacts) which is much lower. Connecticut Report Cards-Norwalk School District (found at edsight.ct.gov) gives 2021-2022 school year data. A review of the data for the Norwalk school district shows its performance mostly down and there is a high chronically absent student rate. If this many “scholars” are absent each day, why do we need so many staff? Why is our school system spending much needed money to hire more bureaucrats?
And I have I have a few questions about “Grading for Equity” the new educational fad:
How much money will this program cost Norwalk taxpayers to implement and sustain? These costs will take much needed money from other important city programs, repaving and new equipment.
Why are we changing our grading system because a bunch of people read a book? Where is the research data that tells us that this approach is successful? You won’t find any data because it’s new.
Why is this approach meant to make it easier for kids to pass, but not learn? It seems that school bureaucrats and the BOE are normalizing low grades and failure.
Is changing the grading system going to really change “equity” in our schools? As long as we’re talking about “equity”, how many Asian people are employed by Norwalk Public Schools?
Because the BOE is too trusting and believes that the school bureaucrats are “experts” the Mayor and Common Council need to step in and find out what’s really going on in our schools. The clock is ticking and it may be already too late.

Patrick Cooper January 20, 2023 at 2:33 pm

Missing in this is any mention that all of this flows from one Harry Rilling.

It’s Harry’s DTC

It’s Harry’s Common council, except for Mr. Meek.

It’s Harry’s BOE

It’s Harry’s Planning & Zoning. Density without merit.

Folks like Bob provide cover because there is money and connections to have if you are a crony.

Sadly – this mess we are in falls directly at the feet of the electorate. You bought the lies and misdirection. Time to pay up – and oh boy, wait until June when the tax bill comes. 😳

Harry is running again. Seriously – Norwalk is going to sign up for more? A potted plant could do a better job.

I’ll tell you what we need – a non-politician with real management skills (not just command & control) to right this ship, and about a dozen competent thinkers (not spineless rubber stamps) on the common council.

Jessica Garnett January 20, 2023 at 8:01 pm

@Jenn I’ve been watching the exact same nonsense play out for 11 budget cycles. The players may change, but the game is always the same. I don’t forget you are a parent and I also don’t forget that you felt differently when you weren’t on the CC. Oh how quickly the tides change. I will again ask my question, why don’t the revenues in this city cover our expenses? I know I won’t ever get and answer to that question. NPS is evil and the city is above reproach, that is the constant narrative. When my property re-eval raises my taxes next year, how will that be spun? Does the Common Council realize what you are insinuating about your colleagues on the BoE when you put out a Op-Ed such as this? Who needs a competing political party when the Dems can eat their own. As always, in the end the kids who need NPS the most will be the ones who suffer.

Steve Mann January 21, 2023 at 8:16 am

Maybe I’ve been away long enough to forget how Norwalk operates but doesn’t the BOE Superintendent answer to anyone?

“Give us more money”
” For what?”
“Not telling”.

Just curious.

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