NORWALK, Conn. – Millions of dollars are needed to maintain the budget proposed for Norwalk’s schools this year due to an unexpected shortfall, a budget that was already short of “same services.”
The shortfall in the health insurance account appears to be about $4 million, according to Thomas Hamilton, Norwalk’s finance director. He stressed that the number is not finalized yet.
Hamilton met with Elio Longo, chief operating officer for the Norwalk Public Schools, and his staff Wednesday and went over the figures with a health insurance consultant on the phone. The information is being updated as to how actual projected claims were running on the self-insured piece of the school department’s budget.
There is other information to develop. “They may have surpluses and/or shortfalls in other accounts,” Hamilton said. “If they’ve got surpluses in other accounts, that’s good because that can be used to cover some portion of that shortfall. If they have shortfalls in other accounts, that would be of further concern because that could push the total number higher. I don’t know what the final projected number is.”
"We were surprised," Mayor Richard Moccia said in an email. "We will be having a serious discussion with the [Board of Education] to determine how it happened and how we can address the matter."
Steven Colarossi, chairman of the Board of Education's finance committee, put the shortfall at closer to $3 million. He said the problem began with the work of former interim Chief Operating Officer Dan Cook, who worked for the city for 2½ years and was replaced in early 2011 by Craig Drezek.
Drezek resigned in June and was replaced by interim COO Ray Senese, who was replaced by Longo late last year.
Cook's work was "less than stellar," Colarossi said. The quick succession of COOs is part of the reason there is a problem, he said. "There has been an ongoing computational mistake," Colarossi said.
"We have a deficit," he said. "There's no getting around it, there's a deficit. The deficit isn't that the board acted irresponsibly in making cuts. In my opinion the deficit is the result of a number of factors, not the least of which is that we didn't have an actual budget document in front of us when we were making the cuts [last June]."
Pressed to meet a deadline, board members worked until 1:22 a.m. at a marathon meeting to balance what Colarossi calls the "Holy Ghost budget." Drezek did not have the staff he needed to comply with a line-by-line requirement. "We had to accept it on faith," he said.
"We will sit down with the city next week and try to figure this out," he said. "The travesty is the taxpayers dug into their pockets last year, dug into their pockets to fund the school system, and the people who should have been watching all of those nickels and dimes didn't. We as a board didn't take irresponsible cuts. We had budget documentations. We had insurance company worksheets showing this is what you need."
Correction made, Aug. 11