NORWALK, Conn. – Faced with an overflowing crowd of sign-carrying parents, children and administrators, Norwalk's often contentiously partisan Common Council voted in unison Tuesday night to approve a non-binding resolution requesting the city provide more money to the Board of Education in spite of concerns about the city's Triple A bond rating.
The resolution calls upon the city to make a special appropriation from its fund balance, sometimes called the "rainy day fund," of up to $1.8 million to the BoE to help cover a budget shortfall of $4 million discovered this spring. The city has already agreed to advance the schools $2.2 million to help bridge the gap.
"I think it's great that people came together to support the school system," said Superintendent Susan Marks after the vote. "It may be symbolic, but it's a good step."
This was the second time the council voted on a resolution to help the school system overcome its budget shortfall. The first was sent to committee where it died; this one featured simpler language with no reference to repayment by the BOE.
The meeting followed the third rally for education on the City Hall lawn, where more than 100 people held signs up to passing traffic, getting supportive honks. Most of those people then went upstairs, packing into the council chambers.
The council meeting began with a chant of "Move Downstairs," a request to move the meeting to the more spacious Concert Hall. Mayor Richard Moccia responded by holding up his arms in front of the crowd and telling them to "act professionally," explaining that moving downstairs was not that simple, as it included moving audio equipment and other things. "We'll get through this," he said.
Council members faced a packed house – people stood in the aisles and in the caucus rooms off to the side; people sat on the floor in front of a divider, in a space normally regarded as sacrosanct; people crowded against the divider from the audience side, leaning on a table.
Comments at the microphone were often blunt, testy and to the point. "Each of you remember what brought you to be senators (sic) and common councils," said Lisette Grijalva. "It's to be for the people. Well, right now you're against the people. And that's not cool."
"We will have a weakened education if the cuts are made and this will affect our future," said Alexis, a Nathan Hale Middle School sixth grader. "... We may not know much about politics but we can see what is going on all around us. By holding this meeting in this tiny room tells us that you think this is a tiny problem."
After more than an hour of public speaking, Moccia took responsibility for the cramped quarters. Last week's Board of Education meeting, when the vote on the reconciliation plan took place, was only attended by 60 to 75 people, and the council chambers were adequate for the BOE meeting held the Tuesday before that, he said.
"If you want to blame anybody blame me because, quite honestly, I didn't think we'd have this many people," he said, before being interrupted by a murmur from the crowd. "Now look. You think I want you to be mad at me by having a crowded room? There is no intent in that. There was no intent on my part or an intent of the city clerk. Normally these council chambers can handle it even if there are a few people standing outside. So it was not an intention to stifle you. You all spoke ... I apologize. I'll accept the responsibility."
Anna Duleep (D-At Large) made the motion for the resolution. "I urge you to pass the vote that in your heart you want to tonight, to do the right thing," she said. "... (you'll) be sending a powerful message, something more powerful than just a phone call every night to (BET) Chairman Wilms from me, or e-mails from all of us. It is saying this body, the legislative body of this city, didn't turn a blind eye, didn't ignore all of the people who came out to meeting after meeting, after midnight."
She said there were actually three parties on the council – the Republicans, the Democrats and the Unaffiliated. She was proud that she had Mike Geake, now unaffiliated, as a sponsor and said a Republican member almost sponsored it.
Michele Maggio (R-District C) later confessed to being that Republican.
Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) made a motion to amend the language of the resolution to include a promise to work on the formula for state's Educational Cost Sharing. That passed.
A short while later every council member present voted to approve the resolution. Nick Kydes (R-District C) had left.
Geake (District B) had cautioned during the debate that it was simply a gesture, without true recognition of the role of the council. "Tomorrow morning I'm going to wake up and the Board of Ed is going to be in the same financial shape and it's going to be up to the BET and the mayor and the Board of Ed to come up with a plan that then comes to the council for us to approve. Pure and simple. Don't delude yourself that anything else is going to happen," he said.
Then he addressed the audience. "We're sending a message, yes. But you people have been sending the same message by showing up in the numbers that you show up. I don't think ours is any more powerful than yours. In fact, I think yours will be more powerful because, as it has been pointed out, we are politicians."
"Hopefully it will have an impact since it comes unanimously from the council, and also the fact that all these people were here for the third time," said Bruce Mellion, president of the Norwalk Federation of Teachers. "It's the third major rally and each time the number of people has gone up. I think it's democracy. It's people demonstrating and rallying. ... If we didn't have this many people here tonight I don't think we would have ever gotten this result. I hope that they know that we're not done yet. It's important that they partake in this way every single year in the Democratic institution."
Jack Chiaramonte, chairman of the Board of Education, cautioned that even if the city finds a way for the board to delay repayment of the entire $4 million that covers an unexpected shortfall, there are still a "devastating" $5.9 million in cuts to make, the result of the cap set by the council.
Marks was more optimistic. She said, "We still have significant amounts to cut, but I think that maybe it would be more equal and we can put back some supports that we really need."
Correction made, 11:25 a.m.