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Norwalk School Board Hears Ideas on 'Ominous' Cuts

NORWALK, Conn. – Nobody asked Norwalk's teachers what they think about a potential wage freeze, but one Norwalk parent has an idea: do an anonymous electronic poll.

That and other suggestions were well received by Norwalk's Board of Education on Tuesday in the first public meeting held since Superintendent Susan Marks released a plan of deep cuts to reconcile the 2012-13 operating budget, made more challenging when a $4 million shortfall was uncovered last month. Parents, school administrators and other concerned residents packed the Common Council chambers at City Hall, sitting on the stairs and along the walls, where councilmen usually sit.

Although the Board of Estimate and Taxation lessened the necessary cuts by $2.2 million , Marks said the resulting $7.7 million cut means more than $9 million in reductions. That is because the many proposed cuts in teaching positions means unemployment costs must be covered.

"Over the last five years, there have been considerable reductions to meet the budget cap put forth that have not affected staff at our schools," Marks said. "Unfortunately, at this time, we have few options."

Laurie Hall, a lifelong Norwalker, parent and library assistant at Fox Run Elementary School, suggested freezing salaries. "Unfortunately our system has turned into the Titanic, and we just don't have enough lifeboats to save everyone," Hall said during the public session. "It has been stated that if teachers would agree to a wage freeze, as have other unions, we would save approximately $2 million. I think that is an excellent starting point."

Hall suggested using Survey Monkey to vote on a potential wage freeze. She has been told that Bruce Mellion, president of the Norwalk Federation of Teachers, turned down a potential wage freeze without asking members.

Jack Chiaramonte, a Republican and chairman of the school board, said he liked that idea because a wage freeze would save 25 teaching jobs. He also expressed admiration for Ralph Mackenstein, director of the Roton Middle School planetarium , who offered during the meeting to go to half-time if it would save the planetarium.

Some speakers pleaded that library assistants not lose their jobs, because it would essentially mean closing the libraries at the schools. Two speakers expressed concern that Briggs High School would be closed.

Marks said she has not proposed closing any school.

Briggs came up in another way, when Hall suggested it be modified to include elementary students who need extra help. "The school could house social workers, psychologists, occupational and physical therapists who specialize in helping students who are now sent out of district at great expense," she said. "Other districts could send students here for a fee. In the long run, we would save on legal fees, out-of-district and transportation costs."

Marks expressed regret that the deep cuts became needed so late in the budget process. "I really want to thank some of the people who come up here tonight who brought, I thought, some very good ideas for us to consider," Marks said.

The school board must reconcile the budget by June 30. Board members said they hope to hear more suggestions at a public hearing next Monday in the face of what Marks called the "ominous and challenging" reconciliation.

"I think we as a board really need to hear from the public," said Heidi Keyes. "I think it makes a strong impact when you come up and give us your ideas and suggestions."

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