More than 100 teachers, parents and kids rallied outside Norwalk City Hall Tuesday night as the clock ticked down for the Board of Education to find $7.7 million in savings in its proposed 2012-13 budget.
Bruce Mellion, president of the Norwalk Federation of Teachers, said superintendent of schools Susan Marks' recommended cuts, which had been revised on Tuesday, hit the elementary school level too hard because they call for the elimination of 25 elementary school teachers and 12 library aides, along with 10 assistant principals, 12 utility aides and 12 intervention aides (according to the latest revision.)
"You talk about decimating one level, it's all there," Mellion said as motorists honked at the teachers, parents and kids holding signs and chanting outside City Hall before the school board meeting began at 7:45 p.m.
"Twenty-five [teachers] at the elementary schools will have a major impact. We'd like a reconciliation with the least amount of pain, not the most amount of pain."
"The reconciliation is still going to be a very tough sled and there will be people who lose their jobs, but we're trying to reduce the impact on the elementary school level," Mellion said. "The two big priorities are middle school teams and elementary school staffing positions."
The shortfall originally was $9.9 million, but it was reduced to $7.7 million through a $2.2 million loan that the city was providing to the BOE. But the number swells back to $9.9 million if Marks' recommended cuts are enacted due to $2.2 million in unemployment compensation that will have to be funded, Marks said after Tuesday night's meeting.
The school board discussed proposed cuts but did not vote. Votes were expected during a BOE meeting slated for 7 p.m. Thursday after press time.
Sarah Scheffer, a fifth-grade teacher at Fox Run Elementary School and rally attendee, said increased class sizes resulting from the loss of 25 teachers would make it difficult to provide individualized attention to students.
Linda Piacenza, a parent of children going into sixth grade at West Rocks Middle School and third grade at Cranbury Elementary School, said the school system was going to be destroyed and residents would move out of the city because of that. "I keep hearing about this rainy day fund and I want to know why they're not going into it," she said. "That's what it's there for."
During the meeting, BOE member Sue Haynie said a proposal was on the table that called for the Norwalk Federation of Teachers to accept a one-year "hard freeze" on cost of living adjustments and step increases for teachers and that $2.1 million could be saved if the NFT agrees to it. She said the money would be used to save teachers' jobs.
"We're waiting to hear back from the NFT on that," she said.
Audience members briefly referenced an alternative list of proposed cuts put forward by BOE member Steven Colarossi, with Susan Gross of Seaview Avenue saying he should not have acted on his own and Kristen Consolati of Honeysuckle Drive saying she applauded Colarossi "for developing an alternative plan and sharing it with the public." The plan can be viewed at www.colarossifornorwalk.com.
Nowalk Mayor Richard Moccia wanted to know as concretely as possible what the status of the current budget is prior to the next BOE meeting.
Elio Longo, chief operating officer of the Norwalk Public Schools, said, "We're definitely in the black. We will close out with a balanced budget." Longo didn't reject the possibility of a surplus when the current fiscal year ends.
Paula Madden, of Rampart Road, questioned why school officials believed three library aides were sufficient to run libraries in the city's 12 elementary schools and that they instead should look to reduce housemasters and guidance counselors at the high school level.
Alicia Chuba, of Marlborough Road, said cuts needed to be made equitably and that Wolfpit Elementary School was due to lose five teachers. She said each of the city's 12 elementary schools should lose two teachers each if the goal was to eliminate 25 elementary school teachers. She suggested that the school board charge high school students to play on sports teams and to take music classes.
Barbara C. Smyth, of Brookhill Lane, a parent who organized the rally at City Hall, questioned why school officials left sports and bands intact but chose to "decimate" literacy and librarians. "It is the quality of our schools that keeps Norwalk vibrant," Smyth said. "You're cutting off your nose to spite your face."
After the meeting, Marks said the largest number of schools was at the elementary level and indicated that school officials had to look for large chunks of money to reach $7.7 million.
BOE member Mike Lyons said cutting money for sports and bands would enable the board to return only one of 47 teachers slated to be cut district-wide. "There's a misconception if we cut band and sports, dozens of teachers could be saved. It's one," he said.
Mike Barbis, a BOE member, said Wolfpit Elementary School may seem unfairly targeted but it had the lowest class sizes in the district.
Lyons said 85 percent of costs in the BOE's budget are related to personnel and that cutting $7.7 million is going to require that 85 percent of the cuts be in personnel. He noted that stimulus money from the federal government is gone and the state wasn't giving Norwalk any more money.
BOE Chairman Jack Chiaramonte said the school board anticipated voting on proposed cuts Thursday night, but Lynne Moore, of Foxboro Drive, urged the board not to rush. She said the board had until June 30, the end of the current fiscal year, to vote on proposed cuts. "From June 20 to 30, meet as often as necessary so you don't rush a reconciliation vote on Thursday," she said.