More positions are being restored at Norwalk Public Schools, the result of what Board of Education Chairman Mike Lyons said at Tuesday's BOE meeting was a "real good job" on the part of administrators in managing the school budget over the past fiscal year.
The meeting marked Manuel Rivera's first since he officially became superintendent of schools.
With all the bills in and the numbers reconciled for fiscal year 2012-13, the board got the happy news of a $1.6 million surplus. Some of that is planned to be used to "repay" money lent by the city to cover health insurance expenses after last year's $4 million shortfall, but much of it is expected to be used to hire teachers and teacher aides to keep classroom sizes low.
Board members voted unanimously to approve the plan to spend the money, though one board member protested the city's ability to swoop in and grab BOE money at will to lower the amount owed from last year.
"It's like change when we send our children shopping, only the city has more power to take it back than I do with my daughters," board member Steve Colarossi said.
Why did the money turn up now, two months after the board approved an operating budget for 2013-14?
Lyons said the board knew the surplus was building up at the end of the fiscal year in June, but final numbers came in just last week.
"You can't finalize your numbers until you're well after the end of the fiscal year because all sorts of bills come in that have to be paid on last year's budget," he said. "So you don't want to make any announcements about what the number is because it fluctuates pretty wildly for the first month or so after the fiscal year ends."
The fluctuating surplus figure was $500,000 at one point, but ended at $2.5 million, he said.
Chief Financial Officer Rich Rudl, who is interim chief operating officer since the recent departure of Elio Longo, said that, while on paper the board had a nearly $2.5 million surplus, in actuality it is $1.6 million.
"There were a number of items that would have posted to 2012-13 if it wasn't for timing issues, contractual obligations, elections of severances to be deferred for January payment," he said.
He arrived at $1.6 million by subtracting $900,000, the bills being paid late for 2012-13.
By state law, the board must ask the Board of Estimate and Taxation for permission to use the surplus.
Norwalk Mayor Richard Moccia indicated that the BET is likely to approve the following plan:
Three reserve teachers will be hired at a cost of $247,262
Four classroom aides will be hired at a cost of $122,768
Textbooks for additional classrooms, at a cost of $60,000
Eight high school house masters and four middle school assistant principals will return to year-round work. The positions were made into 11-month positions during last year's budget cuts, but are now returning to 12-month positions. The board did not say what the total cost of that would be
Repair of two portable classrooms at Jefferson Elementary School at a cost of $200,000
$500,000 will be applied to the insurance trust fund, bringing the deficit down to $100,000
The Jefferson portable classrooms were expected to cost $677,800, but officials examined the rooms and determined that two portables could be repaired at a cost of $200,000, rather than being replaced.
Lyons credits the surplus to the work of Rudl and Longo and interim superintendent Tony Daddona.
"A good chunk of this surplus is not the result of simply lucky breaks on electricity bills and things like that," he said. "They were very proactive with freezes on purchase orders starting last March, very careful with management of some of the building stuff, management of staffing.
"Every month they would come in and give us the budget report. The substitute teachers (expense) was running above budget, but that run-up meant that we didn't have to hire full-time positions this year, and that net saved us a lot of money."
Lyons said the board did not feel that any of the applicants for the position last year were suitable. Hiring Rodriguez temporarily will give the board the time to start over, he said.
Also at the meeting, Rivera announced that he is recommending that a controversial choice of a new English language curriculum for kindergarten through fifth grade be delayed until the next school year. The curriculum is needed for the transition to Common Core State Standards.
Rivera said he had talked to the committee of teachers and administrators that has been studying options, talked to national experts on literacy and studied rubrics and performance data. The schedule that was drawn up for the transition called for 2013-14 to be a development year for K-5 curriculum, with adoption in 2014-15, he said.
"It's too late at this point to bring in trainers that would actually be ready in September," Rivera said. "I think we need to take this time, make sure we have the absolute best input that I can provide, since that is what I have been asked to do and that is what I intend to do."
He also said he has met with 150 people since becoming superintendent two weeks ago, including union leaders, parents, principals, and has visited summer schools.
"It has affirmed for me the great potential of Norwalk schools," Rivera said. "Nothing really surprised me. Obviously, it's going to help shape the direction."