The New Canaan Board of Education (BOE) is an elected body whose mission, under state statute, is to govern the town’s public schools, including oversight and spending of town, state, and federal government-allocated funds. We proudly serve as representatives and advocates for the New Canaan community and prioritize the success of the district and its students.
The Board of Finance cut the requested BOE budget by $3.1 million. In developing its budget, the BOE again fulfilled its promise to the community by providing a detailed annual forecast of the funding needed to continue providing high quality programming for New Canaan’s students. The BOE budgets for its anticipated needs to run the schools and meet its obligations to the community. The Board of Finance has attempted to rationalize this cut as a deferral of funding. Deferral of funding is inaccurate and does not work.
Budget cuts of $3.1 million will affect school operations. The budget process requires the funding of all operational needs of the school district including the health insurance of staff and COVID mitigation expenses.
The Board of Finance labeled certain forecasted expenses for the 2021-2022 school year (COVID expenses & health insurance) as COVID expenses, and concluded that those expenses must not be included in the operating budget of the BOE. This approach to budgeting is wrong. This is not COVID emergency spending; this is funding needed to operate the public schools in the 2021-2022 school year.
A Misguided Budget Approach
The Board of Finance has adopted a new budget approach by calling anticipated operational needs deferred expenses. This is essentially a wait-and-see approach to budgeting, and it jeopardizes the BOE’s ability to plan and deliver the high-quality programming that the community needs, particularly during these unprecedented times.
Since a budget is an itemized estimate of anticipated costs, using this logic, all budgets are deferred expenses. Taking such a position is misguided, and disregards the careful, long-term planning required to establish and maintain an excellent educational system.
Similarly, characterizing these expenses as COVID, not operational expenses, is also misguided. The BOE operating budget must include all forecasted resource needs. This is responsible budgeting, and how we remain transparent to our community and stakeholders. The BOE can predict today the need for additional health insurance funding and staffing needs in our schools. This is not emergency spending; this is a known need for 2021-2022.
In addition, suggesting a shift to a quarterly funding schedule for the BOE is quite simply, wrong. It erodes a long-standing culture of trust and respect between our boards and is a departure from collaborative governance processes of years past in which boards discussed options and involved both sides more openly and collaboratively within the budget timeline.
Elimination of the BOE Insurance Reserve is in Violation of Town Policy
Perhaps even more concerning is the apparent decision to disregard and violate Town Policy by refusing to fund the self-insured health program reserves.
Self-insured health programs are fiscally responsible, and we have saved the town millions since transitioning to this plan design. Self-insured health programs—like the one currently operated by the BOE—require adequate reserves in the internal services fund that allow the BOE to pay health insurance claims even in the event of higher than expected claims experience. The Town and BOE have always worked together to determine the appropriate funding levels of the reserve, which is codified in Town Policy. The BOF is blatantly violating this Policy, resulting in further financial exposure to the BOE.
Cutting funding for insurance is not just unwise, it is untenable. Doing so places the school system in a lose-lose scenario. Either the BOE is expected to “deficit spend” in violation of state statute, or we must reduce programming and staffing to adequately fund the anticipated insurance claims. Furthermore, it sends the wrong message to our dedicated staff who have been there for our students all year. Now is not the time to tell our administrators, teachers, teaching assistants, custodians, administrative assistants, food services workers, and other staff that the BOE will not have adequate funding for their health insurance. Now is not the time to tell our students that the schools won’t have adequate programming and staffing to meet their many needs.
In knowingly violating existing policy, the Board of Finance actions also jeopardize the strong trust that exists between the BOE, administration, and its employees and unions; this foundation of trust, and the outstanding dedication of our administration, teachers, and staff is the primary reason our schools initially opened and stayed open all year.
Funding Must Be Restored
In summary, the BOE cannot and will not make false commitments to its students and staff; it must have the operating funds to fulfill these commitments. Simply put, the BOE will not knowingly deficit spend for the coming school year. And, telling the BOE to do so violates state statute. The BOE takes seriously its responsibility to forecast its operating budget carefully and thoughtfully.
Under both state law and the Charter of the Town of New Canaan, the BOE members and the administration cannot knowingly make decisions that result in deficit spending. The BOE does not raise this issue lightly. The BOF’s informal response to the BOE—to go ahead and spend $3.1 million on an informal promise to fund in the future—would require the BOE members and administration to act in violation of the law.
We fully support thoughtful financial stewardship and management. In fact, New Canaan is a top-rated district and does more with less than most school districts in our area. As reported by the State Department of Education, New Canaan’s per-pupil expenditures are 38th in the state and below comparable districts like Darien, Westport, Wilton, and Greenwich.
The BOE has led with trust and transparency and expects the same of its relationships with elected and town-appointed boards. Attempts at back-door control of the BOE and New Canaan Public Schools need to be acknowledged and rejected in favor of productive, collaborative partnerships built upon trust and acknowledgment of years of excellence in financial stewardship of our schools.
This year has been a shining example of how the strength and spirit of partnerships, cooperation, and teamwork can deliver meaningful results for a wonderful town. Town government needs to course correct on the BOE budget to continue this progress.
On Tuesday, we will ask the Town Council to either: 1) work with the Board of Finance to accelerate the timing of a special appropriation to fully fund the BOE’s budget, or 2) reject the BOE budget entirely and ask the Board of Finance to restore the funding as per the Town Charter. In doing so, Town Council will restore the responsibilities of the BOE to effectively lead our school district as it has done successfully, proudly, and united in our mission on behalf of our students.
New Canaan Board of Education
Katrina Parkhill, Chair
Brendan Hayes, Vice-Chair
Julie Reeves, Secretary