Noting that all but about .6 percent of a proposed 3.5 percent spending increase for next year is related to contractual wage increases or healthcare costs, members of the Board of Education on Monday night voted 8-1 to back a $90.7 million budget for next fiscal year.
In backing the very same proposed budget that Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi had presented to the school board two weeks ago, the spending plan is higher than what town finance officials had set and recently underscored as a “strong guideline” of 2 percent for municipal departments.
Yet that “edict,” school board member Brendan Hayes said, represents “an arbitrary number.”
“It just doesn’t really factor in the realities of both macroeconomics or the financial realities of the New Canaan Public Schools budget,” Hayes said at the meeting, held in the Wagner Room at New Canaan High School.
At about 1.9 percent year-over-year, wage increases in the district are far lower than national averages, Hayes said, and given that about 2.9 percent of the overall proposed increase is tied to the wages and healthcare of those who work for New Canaan Public Schools, a reduction to 2 percent would require cuts to programs, he said.
“So I just personally don’t really understand that 2 percent because it’s not explained, whereas I look at this budget and the thought that has gone into it, which frankly is—beyond this year—it’s the culmination of a decade or more of work and programs in the schools,” he said. “There has been a ton of documents and diligence—that is where our focus should be, not on an arbitrary number.”
In addition to Hayes, those voting in favor of the proposed budget were Sheri West, Vice Chair Penny Rashin, Chair Dionna Carlson, Secretary Jennifer Richardson, Hazel Hobbs, Tom Cronin and Katrina Parkhill. Maria Naughton voted against it.
Spending on the public schools accounts for about 60 percent of the total municipal budget. The district’s proposed spending plan—it’s available here—now goes to the Board of Selectmen, Board of Finance and Town Council, which will make a final decision in April.
This year’s schools budget includes plans for an alternative high school that would serve roughly 10 students with specific health challenges—though the location of that program isn’t clear just now.
Of the roughly $17.6 million or 19 percent of the overall budget proposal that is not tied to wages or healthcare, some of the major line items are out-of-district tuition ($3.7 million), transportation ($3.6 million), outsourced services ($1.3 million) and electricity ($1 million). It includes decreases in purchased services (a $101,000 drop, or 1.3 percent) and supplies ($14,000 drop, or 1 percent), due partly to students aging out of the out-of-district tuition program and a reduction textbook needs, respectively.
Naughton, the lone dissenting vote on the budget, said not enough time has been spent discussing items such as RULER—an acronym for a Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence program that stands for ‘Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing and Regulating emotions.’ She said the district is spending $42,000 on RULER this year and the cost for next year has not been determined.
“In this year of economic crunching I really think we should look at these programs a little more,” Naughton said. “I think we should look at the schools that implemented RULER and what problems are they fixing and what problems are we looking to fix. Our teachers have been addressing social-emotional learning in the district for 13 years. This is not new but RULER on the other hand, is a new program and I think we owe it to the taxpayers to determine what the full, ongoing cost is of that program and whatever is new, we should be asking, ‘How much?’ and ‘For how long.’ What will the ongoing cost be and will it add staff? We should be asking these questions.”
Dr. Susan Bliss, a student supports coordinator in the district, touted the benefits of RULER, including its positive impact on academics, adding that NCPS in fact has been in touch with other schools who use the program, which is “not really a new program” and that there is “really good evidence behind it.”
Hayes disagreed with Naughton’s characterization of the overall school budget as lacking details in some areas, calling the amount of detail “shocking.”
“The level of diligence involved in the process is excellent,” Hayes said. “But frankly, to the extent that we take it even further and further and deeper is sort of upsetting, because administrators who should be spending time actually doing the hard work of managing the schools and staff and professionals, I think that will end up being a disservice to the students in town.”
Carlson noted that a December budget workshop with the administration offered a chance to ask questions directly as the spending plan was being put together, and said that Naughton was not in attendance.
Regarding social-emotional learning, Carlson said that the NCPS focus on it is “translating into cognitive improvements that we see in this district.”
“It’s validated by data and research,” Carlson said, adding that “our scores and our student achievement bears that out.”
“It bears it out. So I think we need to sort of we are fortunate in this district that we have the ability to have experts in this field and most of us on this board would agree that we are not experts in this field and so we are fortunate to have these experts and I for one will continue to vote that way, so that we allow these experts to do what is in the best interests of our children, because I would not want to make the decisions on those kinds of questions.”
The Board of Ed’s two-hour meeting included a long presentation on health insurance coverage. It opened with a moment of silence for 10-year-old Nico Mallozzi, a West School fourth-grader who died unexpectedly Jan. 14.