Norwalk's teachers deserve more respect, according to the Democratic challenger to Republican Mayor Richard Moccia.
Former Police Chief Harry Rilling chose Tracey Elementary School, where he went to school as a child, to announce his platform for education last week, stressing that he will seek the opinion of the people who work with Norwalk's school children every day. He criticized the Moccia administration for last spring's school budget controversy as unpredictable decisions were made at the state level, and said it's great that school safety is on Moccia's mind in the wake of the tragedy at Newtown, but he questioned why it wasn't a priority sooner.
Rilling said he had learned a lot by visiting the teachers' convocation, a gathering to mark the beginning of the school year. He said it was gratifying and remarkable to hear them all repeat the same phrase, "We do it because we love it."
They and other employees are key, he told the Oct. 10 press conference.
But Moccia was unimpressed. "The remarkable thing about Mr. Rilling's plan is that it should really be viewed as an endorsement of our current policies -- because practically everything he proposes in it is either already being done, or is in the works," the incumbent's campaign said in a response.
Rilling, however, insisted, "We need to do more to prepare our young people to give them the best education possible to prepare them to go out into that world.
"You do that by working closely with all Board of Education employees. The teachers, the school nurses, the library aides, the teachers' aides, the custodians, all the people who have direct or indirect contact with our students and who have impact on them ... Really, that's all you hear from the teachers over and over again, `I'd like to have a voice at the table. I'd like to be heard. I'd like to be able to contribute.' That's pretty much all they want," Rilling said.
Although Rilling said he "will respect the value and worth of all employees in the Norwalk public schools," according to Moccia, "I am in the schools on a regular basis, every week. I show respect for our employees every time I visit a school, and they are listened to and have input on everything from curriculum decisions to teacher evaluation systems."
Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Bruce Mellion was on hand Oct. 10 to watch Rilling tell the press what was on his mind.
"I came today because I wanted to hear what Harry was going to say about education," he said. "He's never before had a focused news conference in terms of being about education. That's obviously important. I want to hear first-hand so I can share that information with the people who I represent."
Rilling cited efforts early this year by Gov. Dannel Malloy to channel more money toward schools by renaming certain grants. The response from city officials was to reduce the amount of money they had planned to give the Board of Education, equal to the amount Malloy had taken from grants that went to the city and redirected to the schools.
"It's shameful when we get an 8 percent increase in Priority School Funding money and ECS (Educational Cost Sharing), and instead of using that to enhance the Board of Education and to give them that money in addition to what the city was already be putting in, that money is pulled out and it's substituted for the money that the city was putting in. So in essence, it's a wash," Rilling said. "You get $1.5 million above and beyond what you're supposed to be funding the Board of Education for and you use that money for a substitute for city money. That's taking a step backward."
The school board eventually found enough money in its budget to restore most of the positions that it had intended to restore. State funding came in at the end of the legislative session, health insurance claims were less than budgeted for, a purchase freeze and money saved by using substitute teachers instead of adding full-time employees all contributed. The board originally requested $164 million; the city's $162 million appropriation for the schools was a 1.74 percent increase over 2012-13.
Moccia, however, countered Rilling's budget criticisms by saying there is a "glaring omission" in the Democrat's education positions: "Any mention of fiscal responsibility at all."
Rilling "continues his process here of proposing new spending on everything he talks about, but without any attention paid to protecting the taxpayers," Moccia said. "I and the Republican-majority BoE have done that, with a new chief financial officer, responsible budgeting, tough but fair union contract negotiations, commencement of work on the school's first-ever, three-year budget plan, and complete pay-back of the insurance shortfall.
"Other than vague promises to try to get money from the state and feds (both of which are broke), Mr. Rilling (as usual) ignores the question of how to pay for it. I haven't, and won't," Moccia said.