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Despite Pleas, Common Council Holds Budget Cap

The Common Council stuck to its initial spending plan for the city, leaving the Board of Education budget at an increase of 2.4 percent.  At Tuesday evening's meeting, the Council voted 10-4 along party lines, Republicans in favor, to set total city spending at $287 million, up 2.64 percent for the  city budget, resulting in a 2 percent rise in property taxes.

For the second time in less than a week, Norwalk residents came out in large number to advocate for raising the city spending cap. Tuesday’s crowd, however, was only half the size of last Thursday’s Finance committee meeting where more than 700 people filled Norwalk High's auditorium.  Unlike last week, at this meeting several people spoke in favor of not increasing taxes or BOE spending.  “We need to keep any tax increase to a minimum,” said Andrea Light who spoke about her underemployed neighbor, retirees and people who have lost their homes to foreclosures.  “It’s tough enough getting by, let’s not add salt to their wounds.”

Republican Council Chair Rick McQuaid who voted against raising the cap said he was personally affected by the proposed BOE cuts more than most people.  His job as an intervention aide at Naramake is on the chopping block. He reminded the audience that a small increase is better than no increase.  “We began at a 0 percent increase. It was a tough battle to 2.6 percent.”

Republican council members said they had promised voters to keep taxes low.  “My commitment is to low taxes,” said Council member Kelly Straniti who expressed concern about new state taxes proposed by Gov. Malloy.  “It all adds up.”  Council members also repeated their call to BOE unions to take wage and step freezes.

The Council’s four Democrats emphasized that spending on education was an investment.  Before the Republicans voted on their plan, Council member Nora King had offered a resolution to raise the cap to allow for a BOE budget increase of 3.7 percent, instead of the 2.4 percent. “This would give our new superintendent more of a playing field to her vision.” Council member Laurel Lindstrom called the resolution “a compromise” that would add $50 a year to an average taxpayer's bill.

During public comments, parents, BOE members, union leaders, school principals and staff spoke in favor of raising the cap.  “If the Council should increase the cap, we would do everything we can to make sure student programs are not eliminated,” said BOE finance Chair Steve Colarossi speaking with BOE chair Jack Chiaramonte and BOE vice chair Glen Iannacone behind him.

Bruce Mellion, president of the teachers union, said the district’s enrollment was up 449 students and the number of teachers was down by 65 over the last three years.  “Norwalk schools are being squeezed,” he said.

Paul Bryant Smith, pastor of the First Congregational Church, worried that the cuts would disproportionately affect poor and minority children.  “We have to look out for the benefit of the whole community.”

Superintendent Susan Marks asked the Council to “invest in our district” and spoke about the challenges that Norwalk students will confront in the future as they “face a global ecomony”.  Marks said she didn’t want to see the district come to a “tipping point where it can't tip back the other way.”  She also pledged to improve the efficiency and transparency of the central office.

Marks’ words were echoed by Patrick MacDonald, a high school student at the Center for Global Studies. “Students in Norwalk are not where they need to be in order to compete in the global economy,” he said. “What sort of Norwalk do you want?  One with lackluster schools?”

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