‘Leftover funds’ could support South Norwalk school incubation

Buses lining up in front of Columbus Magnet School Friday afternoon,, April 23, ,2021, in Norwalk, Conn.

Buses lining up in front of Columbus Magnet School Friday afternoon,, April 23, ,2021, in Norwalk, Conn.

Erik Trautmann / Hearst Connecticut Media

NORWALK — Possible savings found at the end of the fiscal year could help the city’s public schools fund the South Norwalk school incubator and cover an increase in health insurance rates.

The district is looking at its end-of-year projections to determine if “leftover funds” would cover the $1.8 million needed for the school incubator and about $2.8 million more for employee health insurance, according to Lunda Asmani, chief finance officer for Norwalk Public Schools.

Neither expense was included in the city’s 2022-23 final operating budget passed by the Board of Estimation and Taxation this month. The Board of Education requested the funding for the South Norwalk school incubator, but the district only received a 4.5 percent increase to cover its base budget.

Norwalk Public Schools was approved for a little more than $217.8 million for its 2022-23 operating budget.

The state allows the school district to carry over 2 percent of its budget to the next fiscal year, which would equate to a little over $4 million for Norwalk. The district expects to see some savings from unpaid salaries due to vacancies. Asmani said the district prefers to use carryover funds to cover curriculum materials and programs.

“I think we’ll have some money applied toward, at least, these two big ticket items,” Asmani told the BOE Finance Committee on Wednesday. “This is the same case on the city side as well is that you don’t always fully expend 100 percent of the budget, but then it also gives you an opportunity to deal with those unbudgeted costs.”

Asmani’s predecessor Tom Hamilton budgeted for a 6 percent increase in the state’s health insurance plan based on historical data. The projected cost from the state was originally $32.9 million. The actual figure was $35.7 million, which was a 10.5 percent increase from last year.

“Many communities were shocked. Some had already passed their budgets,” Asmani said of the insurance plan that both Norwalk Public Schools and the city enroll their employees. “Being a big school district, our financial hit was bigger.”

The district also may get some relief from the city’s health insurance fund, using reserves to cover the balance.

“The mayor and his staff have been very helpful in working with NPS toward resolving these funding challenges,” Asmani said.

The insurance cost spike “couldn’t have come at a worse time,” Asmani said as school officials continue their talks with the city to find other funding opportunities for the South Norwalk school incubator. The district wants to start hiring teachers and staff for the new school and engaging the community in meetings about the school’s culture.

The future home of the new South Norwalk school building is coming into focus as the city expects to announce its permanent location next month. The new building will also qualify for the recently announced 60 percent reimbursement rate approved under the new state budget for school construction projects in Norwalk and Stamford over the next 25 years.