In public meetings and media reports, it’s becoming clear that the New Canaan Board of Finance will act this week to approve a school budget for 2018-2019 that’s as much as $1 million less than requested by the Board of Education. In April, the Town Council will decide whether to make additional reductions. These are important decisions, so it’s worth scrutinizing the logic behind these moves.
Premise #1: Major cuts can be made from administrative and back-office functions with no impact in the classroom.
The problem with this premise is that virtually all administrative functions have a direct and important impact on the performance of teachers in the classroom. To take just one example, if a child is sent out of the classroom for bad behavior and an assistant principal provides one-on-one problem resolution, classroom disruption is minimized. But if there are too few assistant principals to help, the teacher must handle the problem, and the distraction will affect all other students in the classroom. Teachers also rely on administrators for role definition, scheduling, setting performance objectives, coaching, evaluation, and career development. Administrators are needed to manage those who provide safe, clean, comfortable, well-lit classrooms with reliable computer hardware and tech support, as well as transportation, parent interaction, recruiting and hiring. The list goes go on and on. The notion that major budget cuts can be made discreetly, with no impact in the classroom, is a myth.
Of course, synergies in administrative (back-room) processes can be explored, even though several shared-service solutions already have been implemented. But, these projects are more likely to generate costs than savings in the 2018-2019 budget.
Some on our town bodies acknowledge that they lack both legal authority and expertise to specify how spending reductions will be applied. Others have been more specific: cuts must come from administrative and back-room functions and not from courses or programs. The reality is that the choice is exclusively up to the Superintendent of Schools and the Board of Education. It will be their decision whether educational priorities are best served by reducing administrative functions, curtailing courses and programs, or a mix of both.
If the reduction to the BOE proposed budget is anywhere near as much as $1 million, it’s very likely that some courses and programs will be reduced or eliminated. If that happens, it won’t be based on disrespect for town funding bodies. It will be based on a determination of what system best fosters high-performing teachers and meets the intellectual, physical and emotional needs of students.
Premise #2. 10-year and 12-year trends in school spending show the need to curtail spending now.
In the group of school districts in towns to which we are economically comparable, none has had a lower rate of spending increases over the past 10 years than New Canaan. Also, in the most recent year for which data is available, our school spending is in the middle of the pack of comparable districts. Yet the performance of our schools, as measured in various quality rankings, is number one in the state.
There may be other reasons to curtail spending in the 2018-2019 budget, but neither the financial management of our schools nor their performance should be among them.
Premise #3. Holding spending growth to 2 percent will benefit taxpayers.
We’d all agree that capping the growth of school spending would be desirable if the only impact would be a reduction in property taxes. The issue that’s seldom discussed is whether there would be a corresponding risk of reduced property values.
I can’t say it better than New Canaan resident Dave Hunt has said: “Our schools are probably the single largest contributor to our property values. I know real estate values have come down a lot, but without the school system to buffer that, I fear it would be much worse. The woes of the state make it hard to keep residents, and one of the brightest lights on that horizon is having a terrific school system.”
Advocates of major reductions to the proposed school budget haven’t acknowledged the possible link between the school budget and property values. For some, this may reflect a belief that cuts can be made discreetly, with no impact on the classroom. Others have suggested that future buyers would find tax rate savings so attractive that it would offset declines in school ratings.
In a day when property values are influenced by subjective rating services and social media, I suggest that caution should be in order. Let’s say that a perception is created (fairly or unfairly) that New Canaan is no longer is committed to funding A+ schools. If that leads to a mere 1 percent reduction in home values, we wouldn’t be compensated for that hit by the property tax reduction that would be associated with a $1 million reduction in school spending.
There’s no way to quantify this risk. But for town bodies to dismiss it out of hand would be irresponsible.
Premise #4: We need to reduce school spending to protect us from the external threats of federal tax law changes, Connecticut’s fiscal crisis, and next year’s revaluation.
This premise is valid, but only to a point.
If external threats prompt greater diligence and that leads to sensible savings, that certainly makes sense. But, because our schools are such an important asset, we shouldn’t risk diminishing their value by making excessive cuts, particularly at a time when we face other downward pressures on property values.
Our decision on the school budget is arguably the most important one we make as a town.
Let’s base it on sound analysis.