Posted Date: 12/14/2021
School budgets are not just a collection of charts and numbers. They reflect a community’s values, and the hopes and dreams that we have for the future of our children. In Norwalk, our vision is to make sure each and every Norwalk student is Future Ready prepared for all aspects of life.
It is with the future of our children in mind that we present the 2022-23 Superintendent’s Recommended Operating Budget. This year’s proposed budget represents a 4.5% base budget increase.
As in past years, the majority of spending in the proposed budget, 85%, goes directly to student and family support. The continued impact of the Covid pandemic, contractual increases for teachers and staff, plus rising inflation in other areas contribute to the base budget increase.
With plans now moving forward to build a new neighborhood school in South Norwalk, we also recommend that an additional $1.8MM, a 0.9% increase, be allocated to begin initial enrollment and programming for the school, following the approved relocation of CMS.
The Effects of the Pandemic Will Have a Long-Term Impact on Students
Education is a People Business, with High Quality Teachers and Staff Our Most Important Resources Utility Costs are Rising, While Planned and Urgent Maintenance Needs Require Investment According to a study released by McKinsey and Company in July 2021, the impact of the pandemic on K–12 student learning left children, on average, five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading, a gap that will take years to recover. According to McKinsey, “the pandemic widened preexisting opportunity and achievement gaps, hitting historically disadvantaged students hardest.” On the social emotional side, parents and teachers are reporting a rise in mental health concerns and behavioral problems. It is critical that we address these needs now and into the future.
We began this important work this year, with funding provided by one-time federal Covid relief grants. Math and reading improvement teachers were put into place to support students, while math and literacy coaches were added to elevate instruction across the district. These fundamental resources are common in districts similar to Norwalk, and need to be incorporated as a recurring item in our budget.
Additional teachers and staff are also needed to ensure our high needs students can succeed. Special education teachers, behavioral therapists and paraeducators are required to make up legally required special education services that were missed because of the pandemic, and to also make sure that Norwalk is in legal compliance with individual education plans (IEPs). Like other districts in Connecticut, we are also recruiting for multilingual learning teachers, a shortage area throughout the state, to address learning loss. The proposed budget also increases staffing for our Gifted and Talented students, as we continue to better identify and serve more children.
Education is a People Business, with High Quality Teachers and Staff Our Most Important Resources
Teachers and staff are the most important resource available for delivering a high quality education. As a result, salaries and benefits will always be the largest category of every school system’s operating budget. For 2022-23, contractual wage increases of 2.2% overall for Norwalk teachers, paraeducators, administrators, custodians, nurses and other employees will contribute to a 1.4% increase over last year’s budget. This covers modest annual salary increases under our negotiated labor contracts. Unlike prior years, health insurance costs have remained stable.
Utility Costs are Rising, While Planned and Urgent Maintenance Needs Require Investment
The City of Norwalk has made a long overdue and much appreciated commitment of capital funds to renovate or replace school buildings. The newly renovated Jefferson Elementary building will welcome students back in 2022-23, so the proposed budget reflects the additional operating expenses involved in bringing this building back online. Work will also continue for new buildings at Cranbury Elementary and Norwalk High.
While major building and renovation projects are supported by funds through the City’s Capital Plan process, operating budgets need to anticipate a cycle of planned maintenance, as well as unforeseen facilities emergencies that arise during the year. We need to invest appropriate money in our buildings and grounds maintenance accounts to ensure a safe, healthy and positive learning environment for our students. In addition, our budget anticipates an increase in utility costs, as the price of oil, electricity and gas has been on the rise with U.S. inflation running at more than a 30 year high.
Incubating a Neighborhood School in South Norwalk is the Preferred Way to Prepare
We are pleased that a new plan is now in motion to acquire property in South Norwalk for a long-overdue neighborhood school. The new school will eliminate the unassigned and satellite attendance areas in place for many years for South Norwalk students, provide educational options within the neighborhood, and support enrollment needs across the district.
With CMS scheduled to move next fall into the new K-8 building on the Ponus Ridge campus, the opportunity exists to begin phasing in this new South Norwalk school. By incubating the school with Pre-K and Kindergarten beginning in 2022-23, the new school can establish its staffing, programs and character while design work and construction is underway. Once construction is complete, the new school will have already established several grade levels.
The alternative is to wait until the building is complete, and then populate it by adding a grade each year until it reaches capacity. By incubating the school now, we can immediately begin to serve the South Norwalk community and avoid opening a partially empty school several years down the road.
An Educationally Sound and Fiscally Responsible Budget
We are committed to our mission to provide an excellent and equitable education, so all students graduate future ready as civically responsible, globally engaged and positive contributors to an ever-changing and diverse world. With a new Strategic Plan in place, Norwalk Public Schools is well positioned to navigate through this difficult moment in education. The proposed budget was thoroughly vetted and thoughtfully constructed. It is both educationally sound and fiscally responsible.
As we engage in the next steps of the budget process, we look forward to a collaborative and positive conversation about appropriately and adequately investing in the staffing, resources and educational programs needed for our children. We are grateful for the support of our teachers, staff, families, students, community partners and elected officials.
Working together, we can ensure ALL children receive the education they deserve.
Dr. Alexandra Estrella
Superintendent, Norwalk Public Schools