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When will elected officials be as honest as the CFO about school funding?

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Another school funding session is underway and so is the drama. Norwalk’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO) upset parents over his honest questioning of the city’s return on investment, with so many kids not reading on grade level.  He later apologized.

I cannot remember a time when Norwalk didn’t have a school funding problem.

Today, over 60% of our students qualify for free and reduced lunch and ~75% are high needs.  All children deserve an equitable education, but meeting these needs has become an increasing financial challenge for Norwalk. Our most vulnerable are at the highest risk of falling through the cracks.  Over the years, a racially diverse, middle class has left our schools for other towns.  Would this have happened, if over the past decade, Norwalk had enjoyed its fair share of state Educational Cost Share (ECS) funding?

Created in 1988, the ECS formula followed years of lawsuits and challenges regarding equity in state funding. One of its aims was to consider property wealth when distributing financial aid across towns.  In 2005, a lawsuit was filed, Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) v. Rell by 16 towns (including Norwalk) claiming the formula was still flawed, due to amongst other things: arbitrary caps on increases, inadequate aid for special education, weighting of student needs and inaccurate assessments regarding town wealth or ability to raise funds.

In 2016, a Superior Court Judge ruled that Connecticut had failed in its funding formula because it had “no rational, substantial and verifiable plan to distribute money for education aid and school construction.” The school finance system — particularly the ECS formula — was not “rational, substantial and verifiable” and failed to address gaps in school resources or community wealth.  The decision was appealed and in 2018, Connecticut’s Supreme Court reversed the decision, deciding 4-3 in favor of the state. The flawed formula was tweaked by the legislature, but remains largely unchanged.  Disparity continues, as highlighted in the 2019-20 sample ECS data compiled below:

(Lisa Brinton)

Fast forward to today. In addition to the CFO questioning the Board of Education’s operating budget increase, he also expressed concerns over capital spending, if Norwalk assumes too much debt.

What’s behind the latest struggle?

The same issue Norwalk’s always had – the state’s ECS formula.  If spoken of by elected officials or their surrogates, it’s accompanied by excuses or shrugged shoulders.

Hartford’s drive for density in Norwalk is accompanied by zoning and tax policies disconnected from the realities of funding our schools. Why does City Hall still dole out years of developer tax breaks when we struggle with education funding? This story has been playing out for over a decade.  Considering Hartford enjoys the upside of Norwalk’s density, via additional income taxes ($155 Million sent  in 2018; ranking us 8th out of 169 towns, according to the Dept of Revenue Services) it’s infuriating to see the paltry amount returned. How does the state justify a ~$200 million regional high school in Norwalk that nobody asked for, that we must bond, and promise 80 percent reimbursement, but NOT help cover learning costs inside our schools? The new high school is already over budget, minus a swimming pool and blows Norwalk’s school construction budget out of the water, threatening other K-8 projects.

What are Norwalk’s top elected officials doing?

Our state senator and mayor held a rally in Darien, appealing their rejection of the state’s Open Choice program, where students in struggling urban districts can attend suburban schools.  When top leaders use political capital for a PR stunt for 16 kindergarteners out of Norwalk’s 11,000 + students, instead of lobbying Hartford for funding, they should be apologizing!  Until parents understand the bigger financial picture and call on the state senator, mayor, common council, superintendent and Board of Education to talk to Hartford – nothing will EVER change.

 

Lisa Brinton

12 comments

Sue Haynie February 18, 2022 at 6:15 am

Great article Lisa. “When top leaders use political capital for a PR stunt for 16 kindergarteners out of Norwalk’s 11,000 + students, instead of lobbying Hartford for funding, they should be apologizing! Until parents understand the bigger financial picture and call on the state senator, mayor, common council, superintendent and Board of Education to talk to Hartford – nothing will EVER change.”

Michael McGuire February 18, 2022 at 7:28 am

I agree. Well said, clear and to the point. I wish our elected officials would speak with such clarity.

David Muccigrosso February 18, 2022 at 7:52 am

ROI Truther Take: It was an intentional gaffe on the CFO’s part in order to gin up a backlash of support for more school funding. LOL

John O'Neill February 18, 2022 at 9:16 am

This is 100% Right — Washington and Hartford have sent us immigrants to teach but haven’t supported Norwalk with the resources to teach them.
Disgrace.

Piberman February 18, 2022 at 12:31 pm

Ms. Brinton is repeating the old song that lack of CT funding is responsible for our failing public schools where most students fail to meet CT Edu Dept graduation standards. Yet our per pupil spending is comparable with surrounding wealthy towns. Ms. Brinton overlooks the real problem here. Namely Norwalk’s BOE doesn’t have the management skills to successfully to mange our school system. Just look at their qualifications and those demanding by surrounding towns. Similarly our Superintendents. Our BOE would never be acceptable nor our Supts ever hired.

Norwalk’s elected leadership in our One Party City simply ignores our long time failing public school system. We rarely see candidates for the BOE with major league private sector managerial skill sets. So how could our BOE possibly oversee our school administrators who basically have a “free hand”. When is the last time a senior school administrator was dismissed ?

Norwalk’s failing public schools are an inevitable outcome of our One Party City where leading elected officials simply focus on other City issues. Nothing will change for our kids unless City leaders encourage election of well qualified BOE members. Ones with the qualifications routinely found in our surrounding towns.

No amount of extra CT monies is going to improve Norwalk’s well known failing public school system. Nothing better indicates the lack of “straight talking” than blaming the City’s capable Finance Director for stating publicly the obvious – our public schools are failing and give poor returns for taxpayer funding. So far not a single resident with senior level financial management experience has suggested our Finance Director has erred in his statements. Just our elected leaders ! And none of them have major league private sector financial backgrounds.

No major improvement in our failing public schools will occur unless our City leaders in City Hall and the Common Council seek out well qualified BOE members with serious business management skills who will demand and ensue our highly paid school administrators run a school system that educates our kids meeting CT Edu Dept standards.

Having resided in Norwalk for nearly 4 decades its easy to see how the public protest ends. Namely nothing changes because Norwalk’s elected leadership have other priorities than our public school student outcomes. Our reputation remains “secure”.
Simply put Norwalk’s elected leadership just doesn’t care enough to secure acceptable education achievement for our kids. That like to blame others.

Piberman February 18, 2022 at 5:19 pm

Reading through the comments the near unanimous opinion is that Norwalk’s long failure to meet Ct Edu Dept standards for graduation for most of our students is a “money problem”. Certainly not a lack of oversight by our BOE who demonstrably lack the management/business/financial backgrounds commonly found in our surrounding towns. Certainly not of failure of our highly paid school administrators. Those that manage or oversee our public school system have no responsibility for its persistent failures over many years. Just a lack of monies.

Yet if monies were the problem how come our surrounding towns with their superb school system where almost every student meets CT Edu Dept graduation standards and goes on to get 4 yr college degrees spends as much per student as does Norwalk. Could their administrators be superior ? Their BOE’s are certainly far more qualified to oversee large organizations. They have the requisite backgrounds.

So it must be the students themselves that explain our long failure to meet CT Edu Dept graduation guidelines. But our school failures go back many many years. And the composition of our student body hasn’t changed that much over the years. Half of our City’s adults have 4 yr college degrees. That true decades ago too. Yet most of our City students never secure 4 yr college degrees per CT Edu Dept data.

Those blaming “student composition” or “community composition’ for our failing school system ignore the failures go back many many years. So what’s happened.
Some 3 or 4 decades ago our City schools had a good reputation. BOE members and school administrators, especially Principals, were admired. They were proud of their work. I knew many of them. Elected to the BOE was a measure of respect. They were responsible for our schools good reputation.

Some will blame the “renters” encouraged by CityHall. But the City’s population has grown less than 1% per year over recent decades so renters can’t be reason for a public school system whose reputation has quite dramatically declined. Nor has the City’s relative per capita income changed very much with comparable towns. Or even our City racial composition.

Surely its not a money issue. We continue to match our surrounding wealthy towns over the years. Teacher salaries too. What has changed is we don’t hear the words from BOE candidates: “I’m running for BOE because we ought have much better school achievements for our students”. In our now One Party City no reason to run for the BOE with a platform demanding much better school achievement. Just being the Party’s candidate ensures election.

Similarly we don’t hear candidates for Mayor or Common Council running on a platform of getting much better outcomes from our failing public school system. In a One Party City no candidate has to run on demanding much better outcomes for our public school system.

So whether Norwalk’s public school budget is increased by 3, 5 or 10% yearly we’ll still have a failing system where most students fail to meet CT Edu Dept graduation standards. And potential new comers looking to buy homes here and hoping their kids might secure acceptance by an Ivy or first class college will likely bypass Norwalk.

At days end we have failing City public schools because we don’t elect City officials and administrators who care enough to “make it happen”. In our One Party City its not important to run on a platform promising to have good schools. Of course if switched our BOE with any of our surrounding towns we’d have a different outcome. We’d be real proud of our public schools. Our surrounding towns are real proud of their public schools not because they spend more monies. But because its really important to them. So they elect citizens who help make it happen. Maybe they love their kids more than we do.

In search of brave leaders February 18, 2022 at 5:39 pm

In the short term, Lisa is dead right especially as it relates to overall fiscal mgmt of the city. We are getting ripped off and Duff I’m sure high fives with his other state senator friends in order to keep his job.

In the long term, Piberman is correct. $ does not equate to classroom success. Until our student body equates classroom success with success and happiness later in life, Notwalk schools are doomed for
Mediocrity.

No amount of free laptops, STEM, IB or new high schools will raise the tide of achievement.

Ideally the whole ECS formula would get tossed away and we start from scratch.

Inquiring mind February 19, 2022 at 7:40 am

Darien receives less than $100 each year per student and sends $200 million in taxes to Hartford. Bob Duff chooses to try to publicly shame an elected BOE over a much deliberated decision on a “voluntary” program. Instead of working on solving the root of the problem (management, expectations on learning outcomes and accountability), he chooses the “high gain” and “low result” approach of media shaming, pointing elsewhere, and blaming — no hard work to problem-solving needed.

Piberman February 19, 2022 at 10:18 pm

In almost 40 years residence in Norwalk I don’t ever recall City candidates for the BOE campaigning on a platform to increase our student achievements. Even though the student achievement problems in our schools are pretty well known. When it comes to our public schools the candidates typically focus on “more monies for our schools”. Because our school under performance is always a “money problem”. By definition. School administrators and our BOE are never held accountable.

Just how more monies and higher paid administrators will help boost our student achievement levels isn’t made clear. That we match surrounding wealthy towns per pupil outlays typically isn’t mentioned. Public schools performance is always a “money problem” in Norwalk. Administrators and BOE are not held responsible.

Private school parents have different expectations. They expect their kids to meet CT Edu Dept graduation standards and secure acceptance into high ranked colleges. For slow learners parents expect their schools to provide “extra schooling”. For example, longer school days, help during holidays and vacations as needed.

Norwalk parents and City leaders proudly cite Norwalk’s dedication to their public schools. For example matching per pupil spending with surrounding wealthy towns and our $300k + Supt salary. Highest in CT. High City property taxes reflect our willingness to handsomely fund public school budgets.

Candidates for public office in Norwalk typically pledge to help secure more funding from the legislature. That Norwalk ranks 48th in per capita income and is about average for CT isn’t mentioned. Nor that about half our adults have 4 year college degrees. The typical mantra come election time is that if we “get our fair share our schools will do much better”. More monies are the problem. Not the BOE or school administrators.

For the foreseeable future our public school budgets will always handsomely increase from one year to the next. Neither school administrators nor our BOE will likely publicly pledge major achievements in meeting CT Edu Dept standards. And most City grads will not secure 4 year college degrees.

As long as City residents and taxpayers accept our public schools failing to meet CT Edu Dept graduation standards for most of our children nothing will change in Norwalk. In a few more years all those old timers who remember when Norwalk was indeed proud of public schools will be gone. Back then our Supt was paid $50k and our schools attracted new homeowners.

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