‘Frustrated’ and ‘Disappointed’: School Board on Final $100,000 Reduction from Proposed Spending Increase

Saying the Town Council’s final, unexplained reduction of $100,000 from the district’s proposed spending increase for next fiscal year left them frustrated and disappointed, several Board of Education members on Monday night called for equal transparency and greater accountability from town government and municipal bodies.

New Canaan also should look at its own budget process, school board members said, because by giving more power to appointed—rather than elected—officials, that process leaves Town Council members just one way to put their mark on the budget: reduce what’s been handed to them.

Calling the Town Council’s move “unprecedented” in her 12 years on the Board of Ed, Alison Bedula described the move as a “basically random cut to either meet percentage or fulfill an obligation.”

Administrators and school board members worked diligently “to present a transparent line-by-line budget and to have discussions about it through the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Finance, and to have this thing really kind of ripped apart and looked at in detail which is a really necessary part of the process—to reach the Town Council and answer all their questions and then to get to the very end just to have $100,000 lopped off of the top of the budget, I just found that very disconcerting as a board member, very frustrating, quite frankly,” Bedula said at the Board of Ed meeting, held in the Wagner Room at New Canaan High School.

“I think it’s very difficult as a board member for us to go through the process that we do, to the level of detail that we do, with the level of thoughtfulness that we do, and try to be as transparent as possible, which is asked for and delivered, which is what we all want, obviously to get to that point and have a random no pulled out of the sky, to say ‘We’re just going to take $100,000 off … you guys just have to find it some place.’ ”

Bedula and others at the meeting praised Interim Director of Finance and Operations Nancy Harris, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi and others for putting so much time and effort into a budget presentation that included new depths of detail, as well as the four councilmen who voted against the final $100,000 reduction in the district’s spending increase for next fiscal year: John Emert, John Engel, Kevin Moynihan and Tucker Murphy. (The 12-member Town Council voted 7-4 in favor of the reduction, with Penny Young absent.) Engel in particular during the Town Council’s April 1 meeting had said he was dissatisfied with a $100,000 reduction that lacked any supporting documentation or explanation.

In all, the Town Council approved an operating budget of $83,300,121 for the district. Luizzi by way of introducing the topic of budgets called it a 2.79 percent year-over-year increase. The figure represents an overall reduction of about $1.6 million from what the Board of Ed initially had been seeking, with some two-thirds of that ($1.1 million) accounted for by a cut in the $11.6 million the school board wanted to fully fund insurance for anticipated claims for next year. Luizzi said an administrative team would try to figure out how to make adjustments to school operations next year with the final budget.

Board of Ed Vice Chair Scott Gress called the Town Council’s $100,000 reduction “arbitrary” and attributed it, in part, to an imperfect system: “I can sort of understand a little bit why they [councilmen] feel almost neutered by the process, that by the time it gets to them, it’s been cut so much that their input seems to have been lessened, so the only thing they can do is make an arbitrary cut, because that’s all that’s left.”

School board member Sheri West said she’s heard from parents who are confused by a process where budgets assume a tax collection rate of 98.5 percent and collections historically come in at about 99.4 percent. Parents have asked why the difference in those funds—about $2 million, West said—cannot be used to fund the $100,000 difference that the Town Council had removed.

West said she would “just urge the town funding bodies to look at their budgeting assumptions going forward.”

Board of Ed Secretary Dionna Carlson said that this year that the general fund saw $2 million of that net extra go back into the budget to offset the taxable rate to New Canaan citizens, “which I think is a very unusual practice.”

“If we are being asked to be extremely transparent about where every dollar is going, I think we need to expect the same thing elsewhere in our government bodies,” she said.

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