NORWALK, Conn. – Anna D'Adamo felt backed into a corner by Norwalk's school budget problems – since they can't run, she and her son needed to fight to get something done.
"Private schools are far too expensive for us, we can't afford that," she said at a recent "Save Our Schools" rally at Norwalk City Hall. "Frankly, nobody wants to buy a house in a town with a failing school system. You're in a situation where you need to fight."
Many people have said the many cuts in Norwalk schools budget will affect real estate values, but what do the experts on the front lines – the real estate agents – think?
Before the recent budget battle, Kate Johnson, a 37-year resident of Norwalk and sales manager of Norwalk and Rowayton William Raveis Real Estate, Mortgage and Insurance, asserted that Norwalk schools made "no difference whatsoever" in the real estate market. Some people expressed concern, she said, but others were drawn here by the diversity. The impression that the schools are a problem was promoted by real estate agents who aren't familiar with Norwalk, according to Johnson.
Now, she is not so sure. "We have to wait and see," she said. "I would not say people are leaving in droves and I would not say people are coming here because of the schools. Those of us who are here are waiting to see what will happen. I would say give us six months."
Steve Scatamacchia, a 20-year resident of Norwalk and a colleague of Johnson's, said he and his wife, a Wolfpit Elementary School kindergarten teacher, are very satisfied by Norwalk schools but expressed concern about the magnitude of the cuts and the real estate market.
"I don't believe it's going to have an immediate effect, but if this continues to happen, obviously the school system is one of the most important things when it comes to property values, and why people move into and out of town," he said.
Tammy Langalis and Mike Barbis, both Rowayton real estate agents, said before the current battle that the reputation of the schools has been an issue for some time.
"It's a serious problem," said Barbis, a Prudential agent and member of the board of education. "When people start doing their homework, I think there's more positives going on in the public schools, people realize. But a lot of these people, they look at the initial statistics, they look at stuff online and they can't run fast enough. A lot of people leave, too." He added that the option of Columbus Magnet School keeps many people in Norwalk.
The perception about schools is "sometimes a challenge," according to Langalis, a 20-year resident and an agent with Ravies.
You can't compare the city to suburban areas, Langalis said, adding that Norwalk is similar to Stamford. "If you look at the test scores, the socioeconomic factors, the kids in Norwalk schools do just as well as in our surrounding towns. But some people are a little afraid of diversity ... I wish more people would give Norwalk schools a fair chance if they have that negative impression. I think a lot of people work very hard to give it a positive reputation but it's just very difficult when you're comparing to highly selective, elite surrounding towns."
Scatamacchia's children are now in college and he thinks they benefited from the diversity of Norwalk. "There's always been a small percentage of people who do leave because the diversity is just not for them," he said. "But I think the bigger negative issue of the school system at this point in time is there are budget issues."
Johnson said people from outside areas didn't used to look at Norwalk, but the Multiple Listing Service changed that. "Suddenly these outside realtors are coming in and they're selling Norwalk," she said. "Norwalk is moving along well this year, so it really is not having any impact from the realtors standpoint on real estate."
Her four children graduated from Norwalk schools in the 80s, although she and her husband were warned not to come here from Boston because of the "terrible" schools. "Over the last 37 years I hear it consistently," she said. "They don't want to move to Norwalk because of the schools. Well, if you want your kid to get an education and get along with all kinds of other people, go do what they want with their lives, be it a Ph. D. from Harvard or a plumber, they can do it here."