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Norwalk School Board Debates $10 Million in Cuts

NORWALK, Conn. – Midway through a long discussion regarding the millions of dollars in cuts Norwalk schools face, Board of Education member Steven Colarossi announced Wednesday night he was "absolutely speechless."

The comment came after more than an hour of talks delving into the reasons for a $4 million deficit in the 2011-12 school budget at a Board of Education Finance Committee meeting. Yet to come was the beginning discussion in cutting the school's 2012-13 budget by $10 million.

On Monday night, the Board of Estimate and Taxation approved a 2012-13 operating budget for the city that included $4 million less for the schools than had been expected. That money will be used for this year's budget. The board must make nearly $10 million in cuts, the sum of the deficit from this year and the amount of money it was already looking to cut for next year.

Colarossi, chairman of the finance committee; Elio Longo, chief operating officer for Norwalk Public Schools; and Tom Hamilton, Norwalk's finance director, dominated the forensic analysis of why the current budget is showing a deficit now after everything seemed fine in early April.

"Just so we understand this, our retiree health benefits for years have been coming out of our general insurance fund," Colarossi said after finding himself briefly speechless.

One observer used the phrase "phantom account" to describe where the money had been coming from. Another attendee said it was like using a debit card and never checking the account to make sure the money was there.

The consensus was that insurance consultant Robert Lindberg of Lindberg and Ripple Inc. thought there was a fund, which he was calling an OPEB trust account. But it was a surplus that was whittled down over a series of years, so the "account" ran dry.

The discussion moved on to the hiring of teachers. Colarossi has said Superintendent Susan Marks hired more teachers than was authorized.

Marks said that was because of higher than expected class sizes. "If I count correctly, eight positions" were added, Marks said. She said she had gone to the board and given up an administrative position to balance the hirings. There was money in the budget for unemployment, and at one point she was told there was a surplus.

Colarossi said retirements this year have been light.

The committee moved on to cuts. Tony Dadonna, assistant superintendent, said he had spoken to Norwalk Deputy Police Chief Thomas Kulhawik about ending the extra security at the schools. As of March 31, the schools had spent $60,000 on the details, $8,000 more than budgeted for the year.

Dadonna said that spending had been in a deep freeze since December, but it's in a "frozen tundra" now.

Spending cut suggestions included dropping assistant principals at the elementary schools and perhaps cutting back middle school assistant principals to 11 months. The housemaster positions at the high schools will also be scrutinized.

Committee member Rosa Murray said the problem meant going back to the drawing board. Colarossi agreed. "You can take $6 million in cuts in isolation and not impact student learning," he said. "But when you have that added magnitude of getting close to $10 million in cuts, it almost requires that you start from scratch because you have bigger chunks."

If teachers didn't take a raise it would amount to $2 million in savings, board members said.

"I don't want people to think I'm picking on unions or anything, but I'm thinking of it as our whole Board of Education family," said Board of Education Chairman Jack Chiaramonte. "I want to put a burden on everybody, it should be on everybody. If everybody bites the bullet a little bit we can get through it with the least harm to our teachers."

"While it won't be pleasant to discuss, we're going to have to talk about school closings," said Lynne Moore, principal of West Rocks Middle School who attended the interactive meeting. "We all know if Columbus students went back to their home schools it would be a sizable savings as well as it will not be a major transportation issue."

She worried about losing good workers. "It's very frightening for staff at this point," she said. "Good people who have been driving down. They're not going to do it anymore. It's too much budget drama in Norwalk."

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