The nearly $10 million education budget shortfall for the next school year brought around 140 people to Common Council Chambers at Norwalk City Hall Tuesday, where they implored Norwalk's Board of Education to save teaching positions from the chopping block.
Superintendent of Schools Susan Marks' draft budget reconciliation plan for the 2012-13 school year, includes the loss of 27 teachers, library assistants, staff reductions at the central office and the elimination of other positions, but it avoids closure of any schools and retains critical academic programs, varsity and junior varsity sports, music and other key programs.
"We've been hit with an untimely budget situation that we did not expect," Marks said, calling the situation "ominous and challenging."
"We still have $7.7 million to reconcile," she said, adding that the figure is more likely to reach $9 million to cover unemployment costs.
The plan was devised in collaboration with central office staff, Board of Education members, and city officials. Mayor Richard Moccia said he was able to arrange a loan of sorts of $2.2 million for the school budget from the Board of Estimate and Taxation, but the school system will eventually have to reimburse the city.
"We still need more," Moccia said before the Board of Education's regularly scheduled meeting. "We need the unions to take a cut, not a freeze. Work with us as we get through this crisis."
The BOE will have a public hearing on Monday, June 11, at 7:30 p.m. at the City Hall Concert Hall to discuss the reconciliation plan.
Moccia said Norwalk school teachers are well paid, the second highest paid in the state, and that all factions of the city have to cooperate and collaborate to find solutions to the fiscal crisis.
"I can't magically make $4 million appear," Moccia said. "Unlike Washington, the city (of Norwalk) cannot print money."
Board Chairman Jack Chiarmonte said Norwalk has paid teachers "pretty good for a blue-collar town," but in the real world, he said people are not agreeing to pay freezes, as they are forced to take salary cuts because of the economy. Chiarmonte, a small business owner, said he also has been affected by the bad economy.
"We want the best for our kids, but we need everybody to give up a little bit," he said.
The majority of the speakers urged cooperation as well, and some of them offered possible solutions, which Marks said she would consider.
"Unfortunately, our system has turned into the Titanic and we just don't have enough lifeboats to save everyone," said Laurie Hall, a parent and library assistant at Fox Run School, whose job could be in jeopardy.
Hall suggested modifications to Briggs High School to include an independent portion for an elementary school population. She also said the district could save money by housing school psychologists, social workers, occupational and physical therapists at Briggs rather than sending students out of district at huge expense for such services.
Hall questioned why the BOE agreed to pay 40 percent of the Norwalk Federation of Teachers president's salary plus 100 percent of his fringe benefits.
"As a taxpayer, I cannot believe that this was actually written into the teacher's contract," Hall said. "Isn't this a conflict of interest? ... The NFT president does not work for the BOE; he works for the teachers and their union dues should pay his salary."
Ralph Mackenstein, planetarium director for Norwalk Public Schools, interrupted his viewing of the transit of Venus, a rare astronomical event, to address the BOE, telling them he is willing to go back to a half-time position, as the job was when he first started 18 years ago, with half the salary if the planetarium is spared.
Board member Steven Colarossi said he was elected to serve all students and as such said he had to recommend cuts that could impact his daughters at the high school level. The proposed teacher cuts heavily affect the elementary and middle schools, but, Colarossi said "All must share in the sacrifice. The high school, even though it affects my daughters, needs to share in the burden."
During her allotted three minutes to speak, West Rocks Middle School Principal Lynne Moore said, "What more can the schools do? We sell cookies. We sell candy. We sell lighted roses. We staff bake sales on election dates. We sell cheesecakes. We sell magazines. We sell wrapping paper."
Moore said parents, teachers and administrators should not have to "carry the whole bag. We cannot fundraise to run the entire school."
The financial crisis is shedding light on other deep-seated problems in Norwalk, one that some people addressed in their remarks, including Moore, who highlighted two issues.
Moore said the city tends to like students who are in advanced placement or those who are academically talented, but lets other students know they are not wanted, particularly those who need an IEP or those who need a reading or math literacy teacher.
Further, Moore said, "We will never improve because of the grudges. ... There are the grudges against the unions ... but no one has tried to build relationships with unions, just tear down."
Parent Lisa Thompson suggested the derision goes deeper still.
"From where I sit as a parent, K-12 education needs to adapt or die and Norwalk is no exception," she said. "I don't like seeing any Norwalk Public Schools employee losing their jobs, but I also don't subscribe to unlimited tax increases to pay for a system that does not want to be held accountable because its two main unions responsible for educating our children don't trust each other to be fair and equitable."
One parent, Lisa Lenskold, told the board that she and her husband have considered placing their house on the market to flee Norwalk or send their children to private school. She asked that people continue to collaborate to help solve problems in the school system.
Underscoring that point, Moccia mentioned a high school athlete in Ohio, Meghan Vogel, who last weekend gave up the chance for victory in a race at the state championship to help an injured competitor get across the finish line.
"We're at that place now. The school system has fallen short," Moccia said, imploring everyone to work together to pick it up and help it cross the finish line.
"It's not a contest anymore. It's not a contest of wills," he said, adding that seeking a win for one's self while also making sure the other person loses, "that's not what compromise is about."
A full budget reconciliation plan can be found at www.norwalkpublicschools.org under the Board of Education tab in the meeting agenda and notes for June 5.