NORWALK -- In the fall, it had been rumored that Superintendent of Schools Susan Marks would take a leave of absence, but the ominous school budget situation that unfolded in recent months took center stage.
"It's been a wonderful experience working in Norwalk," Marks said Friday in an interview with Hearst Connecticut Media Group. "I will continue in the next five weeks to work with our board on transition and getting us ready for the next school year.
"I have met some extraordinary people here and I think they are doing great things. So it's been a privilege to be here."
Her resignation comes on the heels of Thursday's BOE meeting at which the board approved a revised 2012-13 budget based on an additional $1.4 million in funding appropriated by the Board of Estimate and Taxation Wednesday. The additional money was OK'd to help the BOE deal with a $4 million shortfall in the 2011-12 budget discovered a few months ago. The BOE was also faced with finding some $6 million in savings in its proposed 2012-2013 budget in accordance with the Common Council's spending cap.
"It's been rumored that she would take a leave of absence ... so it's not exactly a surprise. On the other hand, the timing of it is absolutely shocking," said Barbara Smyth, a former Norwalk teacher who has been organizing rallies to show support for the schools before BOE and BET meetings the last couple of months.
"As someone who has been involved so much in the last couple of months, I feel deeply concerned," Smyth said. "I feel concerned because of what we are dealing with right now, in terms of this profound budget crisis. And in addition needing to move forward with looking deeply into accounting practices and things that have been problematic that need to be fixed. There is so much work to be done and to think about moving forward without a leader is quite scary."
The $4 million deficit was caused by overruns in the insurance and other post-employment benefits.
"Our last experience after Sal Corda left was we had a couple of interims," Smyth said. "We can't afford an interim superintendent right now. We need a leader immediately."
Marks defended the timing of her resignation, saying, "What I tried to do was get graduation over with. The students deserve their day," she said.
"I was concentrating on making sure the children had a great year of learning. And then we needed to finish the budget. We did do a final reconciliation, and I felt that this was an appropriate time."
Marks' contract would have expired in 2014. Her last day will be Aug. 17.
In a statement, Chiaramonte thanked Marks for her leadership the past two years, highlighting her accomplishments under "challenging financial circumstances largely beyond her control."
"Student test scores have been up across the board," he said. "We were rated the school system that made the most progress of the 18 largest school districts in Connecticut in systematic use of data and staff professional development, according to Warren Logee of the State Board of Education."
Marks said "there's so much" she and the education community in Norwalk have accomplished in the last two years.
"We brought in over a million dollars worth of public-private partnerships for programs and initiatives," Marks said. "We are on the cutting edge of the Common Core State Standards ... I think we have raised the focus on ensuring that children are college ready. We've given the PSAT for the first time to all the 10th and 11th graders. We brought in the wireless generation automated system for assessing literacy in two of our schools, and it will be extended to a third school."
Marks will have a full plate before she leaves the city.
"My focus right now is making sure I make contact with the people who we've had to reduce," she said.
"I want to make sure I make a contact with each and every one of them and thank them for their service. And make sure we work with human resources and our unions, because education is a people business and these people are very important to me."
Friday morning prior to her resignation, Marks spoke to the Hearst Media Group about the BOE's unanimous vote Thursday to adopt her revised reconciliation plan -- which mostly included add-backs to the elementary and middle schools since they had been hit hardest by the cuts.
"I'm not feeling great about this budget, but I think we are doing the best that we can," Marks said. "We are trying to at least provide all our programs and supports, but the cuts are difficult."
The add-backs include:
three elementary school teachers
three elementary assistant principals
six intervention aides
Middle school teams
Middle school security
library aides at 27.5 hours
Shop teacher at Norwalk High School
Half time planetarium teacher
Even with the additional elementary assistant principals, Columbus Magnet and Wolfpit Elementary Schools will still be without assistant principals. The decision was made based on enrollment size.
"It's not the best way to assign assistant principals but it's one way, to assign by enrollment," Marks said. "Clearly if we do get additional revenues I would love to put another assistant principal in."
Marks explained that Norwalk's other 10 elementary schools will share five assistant principals; the logistics will be ironed out by the principals.
"I think the principals will determine how that works," she said. "They will be assigned half time. It may be they will be two days in one place, then three days...since it's kind of hard to travel in the middle of the day.
Marks is happy to put the middle school teams back into the budget.
"Middle school is a time of great growth so the middle school teams are important," she said. "They make sure that kids aren't lost. They provide support. They coordinate all aspects of the middle school. They coordinate parent conferences. They look at data and help them transition to high school. They take a lot of leadership."
Marks said she and BOE members really tried to listen to the community and to the needs of the schools in coming up with a reconciliation plan.
The BET has given the BOE until fiscal year 2014-15 to pay back a total of $3.1 million into the insurance fund.
Before BET's decision Wednesday, Fred Wilms, BET Chairman, pointed out the city was in "unchartered territory in terms of how we best deal with the situation from the get go."
He continued: "The approach we have taken is working through the insurance trust fund. It's like a loan but we didn't actually lend the money. We are sort of adjusting the repayment schedule," Wilms said. "It's like a loan modification. If someone has a home and they can't pay their mortgage, instead of the bank foreclosing on them the bank works with them, reduces the payments, stretches them out...things like that. We've not supported the taxpayer bailout. We've not supported special appropriation."
Looking forward, Marks said that she is confident that the right measures are being put in place to prevent another shortfall.
"There is going to be an operational audit," Marks said. "We are making sure our COO is providing reports and information to our board. We also going to hire a chief financial officer who whose primary responsibility will be to oversee the budget. I think that we have put in controls and line items to our budget that will allow us to make sure it doesn't happen again."
Marks took the helm of Norwalk Public Schools in July of 2010. Prior to that, she was the associate superintendent for the Office of Human Resources for the Montgomery County Public Schools in Rockville, Md. As a community superintendent she led a district that comprised 30 schools and more than 26,000 students.
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