Norwalk, Ct., Schools Avert Budget Crisis
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And now, let's report on a battle playing out on Norwalk, Connecticut. Eleven thousand students went back to school in Norwalk this week, after a summer clash over budget cuts - the kinds of budget cuts that are familiar to people across this country. Dozens of teachers and other staff were reinstated in Norwalk, following protests by parents over the budget cuts. As Kaomi Goetz of member station WSHU reports, parents are still frustrated.
KAOMI GOETZ, BYLINE: Let's go back to early June. The school year had just ended, and administrators were faced with a multi-million-dollar shortfall for next year. Oh, and just weeks earlier - a new school finance director found another $4 million unaccounted for - for this year. That kicked off the summer of the parent protest.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Save our future, save our schools! Save our future, save our schools!
GOETZ: Hundreds of parents, and dozens of elementary school-aged kids, gathered outside of City Hall. This rally wasn't organized by unions or even PTOs. It was by one parent - Barbara Smyth. She said she had to do something and one day, sent out a flier.
BARBARA SMYTH: It just kind of came out. I felt frustrated, I felt angry.
GOETZ: Norwalk's story is a familiar one. Declining revenues are putting deep pressures on school districts, to educate with less. But that $4 million accounting error was on top of an already $6 million deficit. Barbara Smyth knew the math was simple.
SMYTH: I knew, firsthand, what those cuts would mean to our students, to my child; and was feeling nervous about what it was going to mean for our property values.
GOETZ: The cuts the Board of Education proposed were drastic. For starters, 70 teachers would be laid off, and all of the elementary school libraries eliminated. Mike Lyons is on the board. He said they've been cutting for the past several years.
MIKE LYONS: So basically, there were no reserves left. And when the tight budget hit this time, we didn't have any choice but to start eliminating positions. And I think there was a feeling on people within the school system, within the unions, that this was just bluffing.
GOETZ: Norwalk is a middle-class city of about 80,000 people. It's more racially diverse than some of the wealthier towns that surround it. About 40 percent of the students are on free or reduced lunches. And its schools have a good reputation. But it wasn't just the depth of the cuts that seemed to stir up anger. Lynne Moore is a middle-school principal. She says parents packed meetings about the cuts, but heard little discussion.
LYNNE MOORE: So I move the reconciliation of yadda-yadda-yadda date; second; passed. See ya, wouldn't want to be you - they're out. And the meeting is over. So no one in the audience could have any sense of understanding.
GOETZ: After the cuts were approved, the district said it would reinstate people if more money was found. But as the summer waned, so did a lot of trust. The school board, and some city leaders, asked teachers to take a one-year pay freeze. The union refused, accusing leaders of wanting to break open contracts. City budget hawks loaned the schools a couple million dollars, but wouldn't touch a 28 million surplus fund, they say - would endanger the city's credit rating. All of this frustrated parent Margaret Kozlark. She brought her daughters to one of the many city meetings this summer.
(SOUNDBITE OF MEETING)
MARGARET KOZLARK: And these are the kinds of kids who are going to be heading out of this town, if we cannot do something. I am so tired of the politics. I was here last time, and I was almost in tears. But you know what? Now, I'm ticked off. Because I need to have faith that people are going to do something for our kids.
GOETZ: With just weeks before the first day of school, the Board of Education got some more help. The city offered more loan money, and an unexpected number of teachers retired. That allowed the board to bring back dozens of teachers, and half of the elementary school librarians.But the true fallout from the crisis may not be immediately understood. It's not yet clear how many parents have already fled, or wish they could.
For NPR News, I'm Kaomi Goetz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.