Education supporters rally at Norwich City Council meeting

Norwich — A cold, pouring rain Monday did not deter about 100 school supporters holding signs and umbrellas, shouting chants aimed at Alderwoman Joanne Philbrick and cheering when passing motorists honked or waved in support of funding for city schools.

Some wore stickers saying: “Cuts Hurt Kids” and “Fund our Schools.” Others stopped first at the open trunk of Connecticut Education Association representative Mike Casey to pick up association-funded signs: “I Stand with My Students” and “Stop Underfunding our Public Schools.” Many carried hand-made signs, with marker colors quickly running down the soggy poster boards.

Denielle Sandoval, a teacher at the Thomas Mahan School, organized the rally last week after Republican Alderwoman Philbrick stated during a contentious City Council budget meeting that modern education was daylong “subsidized taxpayer-funded day care.” At the same meeting, Republican Mayor Peter Nystrom publicly accused the school system of intentionally overspending its budget.

Sandoval said school supporters rally outside budget hearings routinely in Norwich, but the recent disparaging remarks made Monday’s gathering more important.

“A lot of us cried over it,” she said of teachers’ reaction to Philbrick’s remarks.

At last week’s meeting, the council adopted a preliminary budget that funded the school budget at $80 million, a 2 percent increase but $3 million short of what the school board said was the minimum needed to keep current programs and staffing. The current $78.46 million budget is expected to end the year with at least a $2.4 million deficit. The council in a 4-3 party-line vote, rejected a proposal supported by the three Democratic aldermen to add $2.9 million to the school budget.

School board Chairwoman Yvette Jacaruso said she was thrilled with the turnout on such a miserable night.

“It would have been double if the sun was shining,” Jacaruso said.

“Hey, hey, ho, ho,” some chanted at the rally, “Joanne Philbrick’s got to go.”

Philbrick did not attend Monday’s budget public hearing and already has announced she does not plan to seek re-election to a third term.

Many at the rally stayed and packed the Council Chambers for the public hearing following the rally. More than three dozen people signed up to address the City Council – not all asking for more school funding.

Resident Ryan Telford said Philbrick’s comments hurt teachers, students and parents alike, and since Philbrick did not attend, Nystrom should apologize on her behalf. Council members did not interact with the public during the hearing.

School board member Joyce Werden told the City Council she too does not plan to seek re-election this fall. Werden said it’s hard for her to respond to Nystrom’s accusations, especially with Republican Alderwoman Stacy Gould attending nearly all school board budget meetings and asking numerous questions. Gould voted against adding to the school budget.

“What kind of place (do) we want Norwich to be?” resident and business owner Swaranjit Singh Khalsa said. “What vision we have for Norwich? Is it worth it to save citizens of Norwich some tax dollars (while hurting) education, which is asset for any community nowadays? I am here to request you to fully fund our school system, so we don’t have to compromise safety and quality of education of our children.”

Singh Khalsa emphasized that the city needs to create an economic development plan, make education a top priority in that plan and “market our education system to bring prosperity in Norwich.” Others echoed that sentiment, saying Norwich needed to fund its schools to attract more businesses and young families.

Resident Dianne Stone said she is a homeowner without children in the public school system, but she said she understands that the bare bones school budget simply could not make ends meet. She questioned why the council couldn’t understand that situation. She said as a homeowner, she would forgo a slight decrease in taxes “to fully fund education.”

“It’s really sad that you can’t trust what they’re doing,” Stone said about the budget prepared by school officials. “They’re being really transparent.”

Board of Education member Mark Kulos calculated the cost to “scrap it all” — meaning the school system — and create the daylong “Norwich Babysitter Budget 2019-20.” At $12 per hour for eight hours a day and for the 180-day school year, the cost would be $109,520,640.

“As usual with babysitters, they must be paid at the end of each day, and in cash,” Kulos said. “I hope this budget meets your expectations. Remember, nothing but babysitters.”

Resident Rose Fratoni, however, questioned the school budget and agreed with the City Council’s objection to raising the school budget. She said a household cannot overspend its budget and get more money from a different pool of funds, as the school board expects of the city. Fratoni suggested segregating students who do not speak English into a classroom to learn English first before being integrated into regular classes requiring more teachers and classroom supporters.

Resident Marvin Serruto also supported the council’s budget decision.

“Just because you want to be responsible to the taxpayers of Norwich doesn’t mean you don’t like children,” Serruto said.

Republican school board member Dennis Slopak said he was “so disappointed” in Mayor Nystrom. He said Nystrom praised the school board seven years ago after a long school negotiation session resulted in teachers agreeing to no raises and higher health care costs.

“Now you think we’re being dishonest?” Slopak said. “Hell no.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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