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Norwalk Schools Chief: Central Office Not Fat

With money tight at the Norwalk Board of Education, parents and city officials are trying to keep cuts away from the classrooms. Many are looking for savings from the school district’s central office. Next year’s school spending plan allocates about 40 percent of the district’s $155 million budget to “central office departments,” but Superintendent Susan Marks calls that number misleading.

Most of that money directly supports the schools and not the central office, says Marks. Only 7 percent of the district’s spending is on administrators, including principals, and 2 percent is spent on administrators who work at central office, she says. “I’m frustrated that there is talk about all the fat at central office,” says Marks.

After the Common Council set spending at 2.4 percent, less than the school board’s recommendation, Marks must look for more cuts. “I’ll need to think about reorganizing the central office in certain ways.” Already, she has proposed cutting two math coaches, 1.5 literacy coaches and 1.5 information technology staff members. She also anticipates deep school-based cuts.

Most of the central office expenses are for services to the schools, such as transportation and benefits to employees. For example, human resources contains allocations for substitutes and retirement contributions for noncertified staff. Special education services, such as out-of-district services, are also allocated to this part of the budget. Employee benefits, including health, life and dental insurance, amounts to $27 million and fall under finance. Also, all maintenance is administered through the central office, including the rental of classroom portables.

Board of Estimation & Taxation Chair Fred Wilms sees an opportunity to consolidate services between City Hall and the Board of Education. For the past year, Wilms led a committee to find savings. It has worked to consolidate purchasing, legal, payroll, printing, courier services, postage and phone services. Wilms sees room for further consolidations in information technology, finance, human resources functions and secretarial staff.

Wilms does not have an exact amount saved but says, “It is safe to say we have saved several hundred thousand dollars per year.” Marks says she is open to partnering with the city for cost savings where it “makes sense.”

Marks pushes back on cutting instructional specialists. “How will our teachers get training?," she asks.  When Marks arrived in July, she was surprised there were no specialists beyond reading, language arts, math and science. “What about the arts and foreign language?”

When dark budget clouds clear, Marks hopes to invest in data systems that will improve central office efficiency and give her access to much more student information. Currently, she’s looking for private funds to audit the district’s current curriculum. She recently obtained a private grant so that all ninth- and 10th-graders can take the PSAT.

As a career educator, Marks says the tension between the central office and the schools is not uncommon. However, she says it is important to understand the key the central office plays in districtwide improvement. “If you read the research about schools systems that improve and are running at a high level, you see a strong central office that leads that effort.”

Marks says, “What we have to do is to make sure that central office employees are all working for the benefit of children and making sure the principals and teachers are getting the support they need.”

Where do you think money can be saved? Leave a comment below.

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