What follows are comments that Board of Finance Chair Todd Lavieri made at the start of a budget hearing Tuesday night. Several residents addressed the appointed body during the meeting. They spoke mostly on the question of funding for the Board of Education as it relates to additional buses needed to introduce a new start times schedule that would take effect in the middle of the 2021-22 academic year.
Comments from two parents, one on each side of the issue, are included below the transcription of Lavieri’s remarks. The chair did address those speakers during the hearing, saying in part, “As you know, I think, the Board of Finance already completely supports our great school system. And obviously we have for over 20 years. That’s why it’s a leading district. It takes time and the team has built an amazing product, frankly. And I’m glad you all agree with us. We do want to retain our great schools. It’s a top priority, again, for sure.”
Lavieri opened by reviewing the budget process—the Board of Finance will vote Thursday night on a budget to pass along to the Town Council for a final vote March 31—and thanked members of the board “not only for all of their time spent but for all of the constructive creativity every single month.”
He continued, “This board’s job is to financially meet all of the growing and important needs of our town and of our taxpayers while trying to keep spending and taxes, obviously, in check. This is not easy. I am pleased to say that over the last last three years, we have successfully kept the amount raised by taxes flat. We are close to being able to keep taxes flat for a fourth year. We have a plan. We aren’t there yet. We have work to do tonight and Thursday, but we do believe the budget that we’ll pass on to the Town Council later this will will achieve our goals, including funding the town priorities, such as education, safety and programs and so forth, while maintaining the strong financial position that we need as a town. We’re very close to these goals through all the really good collaborative work that’s been done, and through cash management efforts and focused spending disciplines, really, over the past four years. Through the spending and planning that we have done, we have not had to cut school programs or sports or arts or teachers or important social programs. We haven’t cut police or emergency providers. And we’ve been able to do all this without really raising taxes.
“All the departments really did a great job to get us to where we are up to tonight, and I believe all the necessary expenses both operating and capital needs that were requested will be met. We asked that in the areas of both human services and emergency management services, that money actually be added to the original budget request by the departments, in order to make certain we met all those growing needs. The total budget at this point is roughly $154 million. In terms of our school, the budget that we will vote on Thursday invests $101 million in our schools to cover health expenses, operating expenses, capital and debt expenses, and all the other town support expenses for the Board fo Education including pension costs, 401(a) costs, and lease equipment costs.
“I fully expect that we will approve 100% of the board of education’s operating spending requests for teachers, administration, health expenses, buses, sports and the rest with the exception of tw special appropriation requests. There were two future special appropriation requests for potential COVID-related expenses that we will discuss deferring at this point. As we told the Board of Education last week, we will review actual COVID-related expenses once the details become clearer. We also need to know what grants and potential federal reimbursements will be available, the details that we don’t have today. Once we have those facts and expense details, we will work on a special appropriation just like we did in October when we approved a $1.5 million special appropriation for COVID. But there is no need nor enough detail yet at this point to include those last two items. We will support the needs once we have the details. Other than that, we support the [Board of Education] budget.
“Regarding school start times, this Board of Finance does not make that call. We defer that decision to the school Board of Education and the school administration. Our job is to make sure that we find ways to afford really the most important mission we have as a town, and that’s to retain our excellent school system. And again, as I’ve said many times, our compliments to the Board of Education and the school administration in this town.
“In terms of capital expenses, we will be working through all of those figures this week and over the next several months. We’re very comfortable with all the requests that have been made. Our debate will be around timing, and whether to fund capital projects through bonding at low rates or through tax revenues. But capital spending has been tightly managed, and while we continue to invest in our infrastructure as directed by the selectmen, this includes continuous road repair, sidewalks, buildings, new solar projects that have brought increased sustainability to New Canaan. But from an overall financial perspective, we are also going to make sure that this budget is financially sound: Our pensions will be funded, our rainy day fund will also be funded in order to maintain our triple-A rating, while having funds available for emergencies as we recently had to manage through. And our debt is at the lowest level it’s been in over 15 years. Our current debt is projected to be $95 million in June of this year.
“One last point: The issue of preserving the 1913 portion of the library is also not within the domain of the Board of Finance. Our process for the library project has not changed. For us to take up the question of funding, we need three things: an agreed Memorandum of Understanding, an approval by the town’s Planning & Zoning [Commission], and a final budget. All three of these items are in process, and I expect we will have a packet to review by mid-year. In summary, the current year has been a challenging one on many fronts. Revenues have been under pressure, we are down about $1 million in parking fee and permit revenues compared with the prior year, for example.
“But overall, I have to say, I think we have weathered the storm successfully. I should say ‘so far,’ though, because this year is not over, of course. But a big thank-you, to our town employees, our teachers, our selectmen, all of the incredible town volunteers, including our Board of Ed, our Town Council partners, and our parents, our taxpayers whom we serve every day. We met the urgent needs of our students, and our schools this year, including that special appropriation and that was to keep our teachers and students safe. Our job is to make sure we’re in a position to meet those kinds of needs in the future. We will maintain financial strength as a town, while we continuously improve the assets, the services and the support that our residents expect. In short, we will provide excellent value while helping New Canaan succeed financially, in good times and in bad.”
Dalipi: “Thank you for the opportunity to speak this evening. And I completely understand what you can and cannot influence. I am having a bit of a deja vu. A year ago, I stood before you, painfully asking to minimize the Board of Education’s budget due to its inclusion of a start time scenario, not widely supported in the town, as proved by two surveys and at the time a recently launched petition that garnered 100 responses in less than 48 hours and in less than a week nearly 500 signatures with 99 comments. And yet here we are again. The same scenario has been included with a 136% increase in cost over the original estimate. A recently launched petition, as of today at noon, has garnered, again, 100 responses, this time in a mater of hours, asking that the Board of Ed’s budget remove the three-tier solution currently proposed. The results will be shared with the various boards as soon as the responses have been scrubbed for anonymity, as some have requested. I will spare you all the details of the rationale but focus rather on financial aspect of this. When I was managing a corporate budget, I always imagined the money was my own. And this is why it’s impractical. So I ask: Would you spend it—and a large sum it is, at $1 million—without feeling confident it would help the overwhelming part of your family or well-being? Would you spend it if it wasn’t well researched and diligence was conducted? What would you do if a contractor came back with a 136% increase in cost? The answer would be ‘No,’ and I can’t imagine that any of us would act differently. Based on the projections of the three-tier scenario in the budget, and the ever-changing position on scenario costs, as recent as [Monday] night, I don’t know how many members this board can feel confident in the numbers we’re seeing today and how they compare to other scenarios that better support the overwhelming majority of our students. It is clear we still don’t have a reasonable solution and the support behind the spend, the budget in its entirety, since we cannot break apart the pieces, should not be supported. And I do have to say that I’m overwhelmingly filled with gratitude for the Board of Ed and the administration’s work that they’ve done to keep our children in school. My children love going to school. It is the highlight of their day. This causes me great pain, but a lot of people have put in a lot of effort behind making sure our dollars are spent for the overwhelming majority, and that does not seem to be the case and it’s hard to ignore.”
Rucci: “I can’t imagine anyone expressing anything but their deepest gratitude to [Superintendent of Schools] Dr. [Bryan] Luizzi for navigating this very difficult year with so much careful thought and consideration for all student. When most of the country is talking about getting kids back in school, our superintendent has kept grades K through 8 in school for most of the year. Our elementary students have been in-person full-time since Sept. 28, which is remarkable and impressive. So many young families have not had to repeat the hardships of last spring. Our public schools are the backbone of our community. Now is not the time to cut their budget. Now is the time to invest in them. Dr. Luizzi and the BOE have shown extraordinary competence throughout this very challenging year and have proven that they have the very best interests of all students at heart. I trust them to make the right decisions for my children and for students of every age. I hope you do, too. I urge to pass this budget and let the superintendent and Board of Ed decide what’s best for the health and wellness of all students.”