BOE Chairman Mike Lyons on 2016-17 School Budget Proposal

BOE Chair Lyons on 2016-17 Budget Proposal
Posted on 01/13/2016
This is the image for the news article titled BOE Chair Lyons on 2016-17 Budget Proposal On Tuesday, January 12, 2016, the Norwalk Board of Education voted to approve the proposed Operating and Capital budgets for the 2016-17 school year. The budget proposal will now be forwarded to the City of Norwalk for consideration by the Finance Committee and Common Council in February.

For more information about the proposed budget, click here: 2016-17 Budget Information.  

Below is a text of remarks made by BOE Chairman Mike Lyons at the meeting: 

First, I want our parents and city officials to know that this budget strives to move the Norwalk Public Schools into a strong and permanent trajectory of reform and major improvements.  One of the things that Dr. Adamowski has convinced the Board of is that while the Strategic Plan we adopted in 2014 is a strong one, it had a major weak spot – the theory of action (TOA) for implementing it, and making it last.  The lack of the TOA is why some of the reform efforts sputtered or went off track, even with the best of intentions.

This budget is designed to support a TOA that will allow the reforms to take root and grow.  Fundamental to the TOA are the gradual implementation of student-based budgeting, and the development of strong School Governance Councils (SGCs) that will no longer simply be discussion groups, but will now take active management responsibilities at their schools. 

With authority and responsibility comes accountability, and our plan includes a lot of this. First, in the ability of the Central Office to step in and take control of schools that are not managed well by their SGCs; second, by a conscientious application of our new systems of teacher and administrator evaluations. The days of getting an "exemplary” review just for showing up for work are gone.

Finally, this budget re-orients use of our grant funding so it is focused on providing the Tier II and Tier III interventions that are essential if we are ever to close the achievement gap. At our recent Retreat, the Board unanimously supported a mission for the Norwalk schools of “Raising the Bar and Closing the Gap”.  ‘Raising the Bar’ means bringing Norwalk’s achievement levels above the norm for the State; ‘Closing the Gap’ means eliminating the achievement gap between majority and minority students. We strongly believe that with the right Theory of Action, the right strategic plan, and the right management team, we can do this – we can make Norwalk’s schools one of the most successful urban schools systems in the country.

To the taxpayers who will have to foot the bill for this plan, let me tell you – I feel your pain.  A majority of Norwalkers have no kids in our school system, and some of them are on fixed incomes.  Increasing taxes on you hurts, and we are sympathetic to that.  That is why we scrubbed this budget for savings before it was proposed.  That is why some non-teaching positions are eliminated in this budget.  That is why from a starting point of an over 9% increase, we were able to get that down to 3.9%.

Our commitment to running a lean and efficient school system from a fiscal point of view has not changed from the last two years, when our budget went up by the lowest percentage of any major component of the City’s budget (2.6% per year, less than half the rate of increase in spending of the Police, Fire and Recreation and Parks budgets over those years). But this year, as many of you know, we have been hit with major cost increases due to special education – and these unfunded mandates cannot be escaped; by Federal law we must fund them. It is absolutely imperative that we take steps to get this under control, both to assure that our special education students receive a quality education, and to prevent the special ed budget from cannibalizing the regular ed budget in future years. 

Sticking our heads in the sand is not going to make this problem go away; we need to aggressively address it and solve it. To that end, we brought in CREC to give us an update on the state of SPED; we are running a professional search for a new SPED director; we are making that director a direct report to the superintendent; we have retained SERC to aid the new director for a full year as he or she moves forward with the longer-term CREC reforms; Dr. Adamowski and his staff will shortly be presenting us with interim plans to implement CREC reforms that can be done without significant funding; and I have appointed a special board of education committee to oversee all of these changes, under the Chairmanship of Dr. Crevecoeur, who has expertise in this area.

Failure to address this now will lead to more costs and higher taxes in the future; this is like those old TV commercials for the guy selling car oil filters – pay me $10 for a filter now, or pay me $1,000 for an engine repair later.

Now I know that people who are genuinely concerned for the taxpayers who feel that the Board of Ed could make do with less than a 3.9% increase; and they’re right. We could "operate" with less, if doing nothing to correct the problems with SPED is considered OK; if doing nothing about the achievement gap is considered OK; if making no effort to improve the schools is considered OK. We could – but I don’t recommend it.

It’s important to put this in context. I have a spreadsheet here that summarizes Board of Ed budget increases for each of the last 20 years. In 13 of those years, the budget increase was more than 3.9%. Here are the approved increases for 1998 through 2008:

  • 4.1%
  • 4.2%
  • 5.9%
  • 5.2%
  • 6.6%
  • 4.9%
  • 4.7%
  • 2.8%
  • 4.0%
  • 4.0%

Increases since the Great Recession have been smaller, but the point is that a 3.9% increase, while not insignificant, is also not as large as many increases that have been approved in recent times (and there were also a number of 4%+ increases in the 1990’s, as well).

I have another spreadsheet summarizing the budget increases for the Board of Ed side of the budget, and the City-side of the budget (which covers police, fire, DPW, R&P, etc.), for the last 5 years. Over that time, the BoE budget went up $21.2 million (a 14.19% increase); the City-side went up $25.1 million, a 19.16% increase – considerably greater than the school budget for that 5-year period.

I make these points to show that the BoE has been consistently bringing in budgets that are leaner than the City’s – we have demonstrated, and continue to demonstrate, our fiscal responsibility. And this budget is no different.  While taking on the seemingly intractable problems of Special Ed, implementing a whole new way of managing our schools and putting us on a trajectory to greatness, we still do it with a budget with a much smaller increase than this Board received 13 times in the last two decades. 

As a former member of the Council and the BET, I understand the skepticism that many of us learned to have about school budgets here years ago. They were out of control, padded with hidden funds, and presented in an obfuscated fashion. That ended three years ago. This Board now practices transparent, honest budgeting, and what you see with this budget is what you’ll get. 

I urge the Board to approve this budget, and I urge the Council and Board of Estimate to do likewise.