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Norwalk Parents Rally, But Council Sticks to Plan

Parents walked away disappointed from Thursday evening’s meeting of the Common Council's Finance Committee. After hearing from dozens of speakers who pleaded for more money for education, the committee voted 4-2 to recommend not raising next year's city spending limit — the cap — beyond 2.4 percent, the amount recommended by the city’s director of finance.

“I cannot consciously vote to ask for any more of a tax increase,” council member Doug Hempstead said. He spoke in favor of a resolution to set city spending at $273 million, which would mean a 2 percent increase in property taxes. Council members Nora King and David Jaeger voted against the resolution, instead favoring full funding of the Board of Education budget with a 4.7 percent increase in spending over last year.

Before the committee vote, hundreds of parents, teachers, administrators and city officials poured into the Norwalk High School auditorium, heeding the PTO Council challenge to “Fill the Auditorium.”

For more than two hours, speakers took turns at the microphone, asking the finance committee to recommend  “raising the cap.” If the Common Council passes a 2.4 percent spending cap next week based on the committee’s recommendation, the school board will have to make $3.5 million in staff and programming cuts.

Before making their decision, council members asked city Finance Director Tom Hamilton about the impact of Gov. Dannel Malloy’s recently proposed budget plan on state aid to Norwalk. Hamilton said he hadn’t yet “fully analyzed” the changes, but he said it was “dangerous” to change projections based on the governor’s recommendations, which may change during the legislative session.

Finance Committee Chair Nick Kydes suggested that if the school unions gave up wage and step increases, it could save the BOE $3.2 million.

During the public hearing before the vote, parents spoke about their children, their own struggles in this economy and their attachment to the Norwalk community and its schools. Most parents spoke in support of the district as whole and asked officials to make education a priority.

Amy Newsom, PTO president at Silvermine Elementary school, talked about “shared sacrifice,” a term used by politicians about the difficult funding decisions facing towns and schools. “I think everybody should pitch in. I would pay more taxes. I also think there should be union concessions.”

Several people, including seniors, spoke about how investing in schools is good for real estate values. “My house is my single biggest investment,” said Paul Brown, a retired resident. “If the school system goes down so does the value of my house.”

Teachers and parents spoke about renewed optimism they have in the Norwalk schools because of the new superintendent. Melissa Petropolis, a teacher and parent, said, “After 22 years of teaching, I feel like we are headed in a very positive direction. That makes me very hopeful.”

Parents also said they were frustrated by threats of constant cuts. “Why should we continually be stealing from our children?” asked Jimi Napoli, president of the Columbus PTO. “I want to live in a community that believes in its children.”

School board members Jack Chiaramonte and Steve Colarossi promoted the budget, as did West Rocks principal Lynne Moore and Brien McMahon principal Susan Koroshetz. The schools' Chief Operating Officer Craig Drezek spoke on behalf of Superintendent Susan Marks, who is attending a conference in Colorado that she paid for herself. “Even with the union concessions, a 2 percent increase will mean significant cuts.”

Did you attend Thursday night's meeting? What is your reaction? Start the discussion below!

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