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Norwalk Schools Chief Asks for 8% Budget Increase

NORWALK, Conn. – Susan Marks says the feedback she got during her first year as superintendent of Norwalk schools was consistent: budget for what you need.

To that end Marks has proposed an operating budget for 2012-13 that is nearly 8 percent higher than this year's budget.

"Things were under budgeted last year," she said Wednesday morning in her office. "... I felt that instead of under budgeting this year, we needed to budget what we needed and then work from there."

The operating budget request Marks presented to the Board of Education is for nearly $167 million, a 7.83 percent hike from this year's budget. Yet, it doesn't provide for an increase in terms of the education students receive.

"Essentially this is a same services budget," she said. "The biggest cost driver is the (health) insurance." No new programs are proposed. The dramatic rise in costs of employee benefits, special education and utilities are the primary reasons cited for the more than $12 million increase.

Health insurance is projected to cost nearly $27 million, she said. It was hoped that this would be in the $25 million to $26 million range.

The request is the first step in the budgeting process, the beginning of months of discussions. "We are going to look at a lot of areas in terms of trying to reduce this budget over the next few months," she said. "The board is going to have to send the budget over, and I don't know if it will be at this percentage."

The price of oil is a problem: It is projected to cost $500,000 more than in the 2011-12 budget. Marks thought the city might get a lower bid from a supplier and said schools will use gas as much as possible because it is currently cheaper.

Cost cutting might involve some reorganizing, such as the placement of out-of-district students. The city may try to rebid the health insurance benefits and renegotiate contracts with service providers.

Marks pointed out that Norwalk has the second highest paid teachers in the state. They will get a modest cost of living increase. "It adds up when you have close to 1,000 teachers," she said.

The superintendent did not take a raise this year and won't take one next year. She has expenditure restrictions and a hiring freeze for the rest of the school year in the hopes of rolling over savings to the 2012-13 budget.

The budget might have been higher – on Monday she cut $600,000 out of it. The reductions came in utilities and transportation costs, as well as from science and math curriculums.

Marks has talked to city officials about the request and expects to have work to do. "The feedback I got was: understanding of the challenges, concern about the extent of the request and a willingness to work with us," she said. "Understanding that to look at cuts so early in the process and reductions so early in the process may not be the best way to go about this. And we have to work together on this."

The next steps in the process are:

• Jan. 3: Regularly scheduled Board of Education meeting, 7:45 p.m., City Hall Room 300.

• Jan. 4: Board of Education finance committee meeting, 7:30 p.m., Concert Hall.

• Jan. 10: Special Board of Education meeting to vote on the budget request, 7:30 p.m., Concert Hall.

• Jan. 13: Budget request presented to city.

• Jan. 19: Review of request by the city.

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