Last night’s public hearing on Norwalk’s city budget was about one thing only--the school budget. The Board of Estimation and Taxation is in the process of setting the budget for each city department, including the Board of Education. BET members are working under a monetary cap of $281 million--up just 1 percent from last year--set by the Common Council last month.
As part of that process, the BET and approximately 150 members of the public heard from 18 community members including PTO presidents, principals, union leaders, and Board of Education members about the school budget. While all the speakers advocated for education in Norwalk, there were a range of concerns and requests presented. Lisa Henderson, PTO president at West Rocks presented the BET with a petition signed by 388 parents which requests a 3.4 percent increase of the 2010-2011 BOE budget “to maintain current staffing and programs”.
Many of the speakers acknowledged the poor state of the economy and the importance of keeping taxes low at this time. “We understand your efforts to keep taxes low, but please consider shifting any extra funds in the city’s budget to education,” said Jill Arvanitis, PTO Council president. BOE hair Glenn Iannacone,was also tempered in his comments to the BET, “Be fair and equitable” across departments, he said.
Several speakers made the correlation between good schools and property value. “A zero percent increase might get people in Norwalk ‘on the move’ and leaving Norwalk,” said Karen Pace, co-president of the Brien McMahon Parents’ Club.
Parents and staff from Brien McMahon and Norwalk High School spoke about the effect of the possible reduction of high school teachers. “For every high school teacher that I lose, I move 130 kids into a study hall. I disengage them from the learning process,” said Susan Brown Koroshetz, principal of Brien McMahon.
Throughout the evening, it was difficult to discern whether the commentators at the microphone were addressing the BET or the Norwalk Federation of Teachers. Several of the comments were directed at Bruce Mellion, president of the union, who was sitting in the front row, urging him to reopen the teachers contract. “We are in real jeopardy," said Shannon Tchkotova, co-president of the Rowayton elementary school PTA. "Union concessions are needed. "We can’t afford to honor the contract.”
Mellion spoke about how much his union, the Norwalk Federation of Teachers, has already done to save the BOE money. During its last contract negotiation in October, the NFT switched health plans saving the district $3.6 million over two years and negotiated a 1.37 percent salary increase. Mellion added that teachers spend hundreds of their own dollars on school supplies. “We have done our part,” he said.
Lynn Moore, principal of West Rocks, spoke passionately about the increase of childhood poverty in Norwalk. She said the "free and reduced lunch" population who receive federal subsidies is up from 20 percent in 1998 to 40 percent this year. “More money is needed.” She does not believe that increasing class size is an option. “We are making progress, but we cannot support larger class sizes.”
Several of the speakers, including BET members, talked about how transparent and collaborative the budget process has been so far. “There is an openness among players,” said Fred Wilms, BET chair after the meeting. He also commented that the turnout was smaller than previous years. “Usually this concert hall is full,” he said. It was less than half full last night. “People know that times are tough and there aren't too many good choices.”