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Has City Targeted Norwalk Teachers?

[Updated 2/23]: The president of the Norwalk's teachers' union says city officials have been in “attack mode” this budget season.  “The rhetoric has been disappointing. I’d like the tone of the discussions to change,”  says Bruce Mellion.

Unions representing school administrators, teachers and support personnel have been at the center of almost every city budget discussion this year. City officials, including Mayor Richard Moccia and Director of Finance Tom Hamilton, have repeatedly asked the school union leaders for wage freezes in a call for “shared sacrifice” in order to limit the property tax increase to 2 percent.

In an op-ed in The Hour, Republican Town Chair Art Scialaba called BOE employees “budget busters.” At last week's BOE meeting, Board Chair Jack Chiaramonte lost his temper when a teacher said during public comments that she was disappointed by Chiaramonte's hostile comments about the teachers union at a PTO Council meeting.

In an interview with TheDailyNorwalk.com, Mellion said teachers become “convenient targets” during economic downturns even though the teacher's union has been a part of “shared sacrifice.” “We were the first to give and we gave the most.” Mellion has stated repeatedly that the teachers three year union contract awarded in 2009 will save the district $7 million over two years. He also said that the contract, which includes a 1.36 percent raise for next year, was widely praised by the city and tax board for its prudence. As a result of a switch to Health Savings Account plans, Mellion said, teachers now pay more out-of-pocket for health care. “We took a big bite from the apple first, not two small bites.”

Mellion said the BOE received a zero percent increase last year, adding that education spending has been declining in recent years, from 58 percent of the city’s budget in 2002 to 54 percent next year.  Over the last three years, the district’s enrollment was up 449 students and the number of teachers was down by 65. While next year’s budget holds the number of city employees steady, Norwalk schools stand to lose dozens of employees. City employees, Mellion adds, were also offered generous retirement packages last year.

Mellion says that Hamilton talks about sacrifices by "city" employees but overlooks what teachers have done. “There has been a lot of spin by the city finance director,” says Mellion. “The city is pitting its employees against school employees. It's not fair since we are all city employees.”

On Thursday , hundreds of community members filled the Norwalk High School auditorium to support raising the city spending limit to allow more money for education. In the end, the Common Council Finance Committee recommended no increase beyond 2.4 percent, which will result in several million dollars worth of cuts to school programs and staff.

“We had one of the largest turnouts ever to a public hearing at this point,” said Mellion, who estimated that more than 700 people attended and that 48 of 50 speakers favored raising the cap. “It was very sad. No matter what the public said, the council had already decided what they were going to do. The politicians are not listening to their constituents. Where’s the democratic process in that?”

Mellion said city officials have been “rude and not willing to have a meaningful discussion.” “I am willing to sit down and talk with anyone,” he said. He added that the unions took a leadership role in working out a way to make up snow days in February. “We looked out for the best interest of the students and community”

Last year, he said, union leaders presented a proposal that could have saved the district $2 million to $3 million, but were ignored by the BOE negotiating committee, led by Chiaramonte.  The three-part plan called for early retirement incentives, a wage freeze for administrators and a resolution to the support-staff union contract.

Mellion proposes that the city could responsibly take care of the schools by raising the budget cap 1 percent and using a small part of the city’s $25 million “rainy day fund.” “The school system belongs to the Norwalk community.  You can’t keep asking the employees to subsidize the system.”

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