By Kevin Schultz, The Norwalk Hour
NORWALK — After heated discussions, the Board of Education on Tuesday passed plans for a whopping 10.1 percent increase — or an additional $17.75 million — in its annual operating budget for the 2017-18 school year.
The board approved finalized plans for a new school in South Norwalk along with the hefty capital budget to pay for its construction, and the renovation and expansion of several other existing schools.
“We are not going to get 10 percent,” said Steven Adamowski, Norwalk superintendent of schools, about to the approved operating budget.
He and other several other board members described the passing of the budget as a “formality” to start discussions on the finalized budget as it passes to the city’s Common Council and Board of Estimation and Taxation.
Board Member Shirley Mosby — who abstained from voting and was the only member to not vote in favor of the budget — said her reservations centered on the amount the increase.
“I haven’t seen a time when a 10.1 percent increase has ever come from the Board of Education,” Mosby said. “… That 10.1 percent, I never in the history have seen that.”
Mosby said she has always supported education and children, but reminded the board she is a taxpayer as well. She threw out the idea of putting the 1.4 percent increase — for a special appropriation to cover enrollment growth — on the chopping block.
Meanwhile, Adamowski said the “elephant in the room” in regards to the large budget increase was the 4.9 percent or roughly $8.61 million needed for increased health insurance costs.
“If you take out the health insurance we have a very reasonable budget,” Adamowski said.
Without the budget increase dedicated to those costs, the district’s annual operating budget increase would come in at 5.2 percent, which more closely resembles prior year increases.
The other 5.2 percent increase to the district’s operating budget includes: 2.3 percent or roughly $3.98 million for program improvements stemming from the district’s Strategic Operating Plan, 1.5 percent or roughly $2.62 million to cover normal cost escalation, and 1.4 percent or roughly $2.54 million for a special appropriation to cover enrollment growth in the district.
Adamowski called the rise in health care costs a crisis, and said he would work with city officials to find new ways to address the increases.
Adamowski outlined three options that could be explored as solutions to the increased health care costs. One included combining the school district and city employees for the purpose of self-insurance. The second would have the city assume health insurance costs for all municipal employees. The last included entering the city in the State 2.0 Health Insurance Program, which covers employees of Connecticut towns, cities and school districts.
Plans for a new SoNo school
After a failed attempt by Board Member Yvel Crevecoeur to get board members to vote individually on the plans for each school and its prospective program for the finalized phase one of the district’s facilities master plans, the board passed the superintendent’s recommended plans in a 5 to 0 vote, with four members abstaining.
Under those plans, Columbus Magnet School will move into a newly constructed pre-K-8 school campus at the site of the former Nathaniel Ely School.
The Columbus Magnet School building will be renovated as new to house a K-5 intra-district magnet school with an International Baccalaureate Early Years Programme.
Ponus Ridge Middle School will be transformed from a middle school into a full-fledged pre-K-8 STEM-themed magnet campus.
Jefferson Science Magnet School will lose its temporary trailers and magnet-school status and return to being a neighborhood school.
The effort for changes in school facilities come as the district runs roughly 750 seats short, is expected to grow to over 1,000 by 2025 and nearly 400 kids are stationed in 15 portable trailers that are nearing the end of their designed lifespan.
A capital budget plan was not voted on by the time of publication.