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Norwalk School Budget: A Counterproposal and Stab At Some Solutions

I have spent the last few weeks speaking with around two dozen local and state officials, BOE members, and community organization leaders to learn as much as I can about school budgeting. In the near term: what's possible and what are hard stops. Also the historical choke points and potential openings: what are pie in the sky ideas and what are legitimate opportunities. This doesn't ignore the few years myself and many others have had these conversations, and the many more years other, more experienced Norwalk citizens have pursued them.

Likewise, I've tried to search for context. I've heard from teachers about their concerns: what works in the system, what doesn't work in system, and their own personal experiences. There have been commonalities and differences, celebrations and frustrations, but most importantly, dedication and a strong desire to see their work succeed.

A couple brief generalities learned:

- Although some have heard otherwise, the Common Council and Mayor's office do indeed possess a full, itemized breakdown of the operating request from NPS. This may not account for some requests for specific context, but the breadth of information is in the hands of decision makers.

- There is wide agreement across local and state representatives on the validity and nature of the challenges in Norwalk, a city with a unique mix of gold coast property taxes, multi-family housing, and all in-between, along with incomes and learning needs that vary wildly in ways our surrounding towns do not possess.

- There is agreement that there is no panacea for these challenges; that the solutions are likely multi-pronged and complicated, and will be a result of long game endurance vs short term upheaval. There's also some evidence there are opportunities out there that NPS could take advantage of to lessen some undetermined financial burden they apply to annual operating requests.

- There is no established agreement, as far as I've found, on the recent decisions of NPS whether it be how ESSER funds were used, the success of those positions, recent curriculum changes, or other NPS initiatives with varying public support, such as School Choice. Some staff and parents are strongly against some NPS decisions and policy, while others have expressed support for aspects of them.


Like others with opinions but little merit, I'm ill-qualified to offer specifics on my own. But, I can say I've learned a lot from others, and wanted to put some of this down for those that are interested. I've also come up with some informed ideas* about potential steps forward: both line items for the near term dilemma, and macro-level focuses for the long term systemic problems.

* Note: while my ideas may be informed as much as I can muster, that doesn't mean they're any good. I'll leave that to the beholder.

A Compromise Budget Proposal for FY2024

The mayor has offered a 4% increase, less than a third of the requested 12.7% increase NPS requested. According to NPS, this is broken down into four major categories outlined in this document. There is no specific breakdown from the Mayor's office as to how they envision allocating the offer, but that is traditionally the responsibility of the schools to configure.

I've dug in and come up with the following 4-part detailed layman's counterproposal and idea framework based on:

- the uniqueness of the current demands post-federal relief dollars

- the initial ask from NPS

- the Mayor's offer

- historical increases the City is willing to provide based on initial offers (and traditional levels of compromise)

- specific fixed needs

Get your slingshots and rotten fruit ready.

1. A 7.9% total increase to the operating budget, encompassing and paid for by these specific line items:

- 5.0% to cover FY24 Base Budget Request

This covers fixed changes in contractural obligations, classroom and school services, operations, business services, administration, and professional development.

- 1.6% to cover ESSER-funded Counselor and Social Worker salaries and benefits by:

- reducing current 57 positions down to 31

- 1 social worker / school (22)

- 1 guidance counselor for each Middle and High school (9)

This covers expenses resulting from past flat budget and request for these to be moved to temporary ESSER coverage

***According to the Mayor's math, these two items above (6.6%) would result in an ~3-3.5% increase in property taxes, versus the ~2.5% his current offer projects.***

- 1.3% from a one time $3MM drawdown of city's Rainy Day Fund (no effect on property taxes) to cover:

- SPED out-of-district costs

- SPED contract service increases

2. A joint proposal from the City and NPS to produce a co-op partnership with local organizations to aide in the continued academic and social-emotional recovery (and associated issues like chronic absenteeism) from pandemic-related learning losses. This initiative would:

- Be funded by additional state appropriations (more on this below) and philanthropic investment.

- All-hands-on-deck leverage of community-based organizations like Norwalk ACTS, Mid-Fairfield Community Cares Center, Kids in Crisis, etc.

- Financially managed as part of the City-side budget

- Appointed program coordinators on both City and NPS sides

3. An expanded NPS initiative to further reduce out-of-district costs for SPED, currently accounting for a massive 1/3 of total SPED budget request.

4. A hard cap of a more traditional 3% increase for FY2025 operating budget to stabilize property tax effect.


How We Can (Maybe) Fix This Annual Charade

I truly believe in the long term opportunities that items #2 and #3 above could provide for better use of NPS budget dollars. They are locally-driven ideas that, while incumbent on some for state involvement, are not entirely hinged on them. Norwalk can do some meaningful version of them if the interested parties could work together and think creatively (and humbly) about problem solving. Notably, some items are easier than others - there's no question at the state level different districts have different dynamics and opinions on this matter, leading to mixed over/unders on success. But there are some baselines, some loftier than others, that we can start with, informed by individuals brighter than I:

1. Additional revisions to Education Cost Sharing (ECS) formula

- Change the current base aid 70/30 (property/income) ratio something closer to 60/40 to more accurately reflect the dynamics in a city like Norwalk

2. Lower the threshold for the SPED Excess Cost grant

- Lower the state funding threshold to 2x the district's average expenditure per pupil from the current 4.5x. This would bring more students under this funding purview.

3. Move 504 students into the SPED count for state grant purposes

- This would increase the eligibility and accessibility for kids that need support

4. Create better and more responsive data models to better capture the needs of MLLs (multi-language learners)

- There is wide agreement that there is a data vacuum in this area, and without verifiable information to deliver to our representatives, there is a challenge to reach equitable solutions

- This would require deep partnership with local organizations to gather and organize this data for pre-established time periods


At the end of the day, I'm a loosely-informed, thoroughly average citizen. I've lived a decade in this city I love. I want nothing more than to see all of the stakeholders be able to be frank, conversations be robust, and solutions, however flimsy, at least creative. What people, more than anything, have told me across the board is this: The system is broken. I hope throwing ideas at the wall will serve people with a little leverage and bravery to chip away at fixing that sentiment. Maybe this can be a modest start.

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Our “team of 4 Supts” and BOE are forever telling us we need much more monies to fund new programs to properly educate our kids so they meet CT Edu Dept standards. But there’s nothing truly unique about Norwalk’s student body than tens of thousands of school districts across the nation. Our real problem is our BOE failed to hire a Supt using Prof Search with a proven record of accomplishment in properly educating kids similar to Norwalk’s . Our BOE lacks the background our surrounding towns take for granted.

Across the nation tens of thousands of School Districts manage to properly educate their kids to meet their State requirements. As do millions around the world. What is so “special”…

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