New Canaan must be careful as a community to have frank, detailed conversations about its financial situation and not “succumb to the tyranny of the parent,” a homeowner and mother of four children in public elementary and middle schools here told members of the Board of Finance on Tuesday.
Everyone loves their kids and wants a good school district, yet this idea floating around New Canaan now that spending on the public schools somehow fuels property values is false, according to Rita Nagle.
“That is simply not the economic relationship that exists,” Nagle said during a budget hearing held at Town Hall. “Property values fund taxes, which fund school spending. That is the way the relationship works. It does not work in reverse, which is why school spending is up in the last decade, as we all know, and property values in many cases are down 20 percent.”
Saying she did not intend “to be a naysayer to the mothers who are going to pan me tomorrow,” Nagle added that “it is oversimplifying to say we have to support our kids and we have to love our schools.”
Half of the households in New Canaan have no children in the public school system, she said, and “the senior citizens in this town are getting squeezed.”
Though every line item in proposed spending plans for next fiscal year is reasonable, “that doesn’t mean we need to spend money,” Nagle said.
“If we have to cut $1 million it will not be easy and it will not be pleasant, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t the right decision … We have an entire community here. We don’t only have the school-age community. And we need to make sure the money we are spending as a town is fair to all the constituents. And I just worry sometimes that the Board of Ed and the parents’ committees do such a good job communicating the needs of our students that we sometimes plow ahead with that and we don’t worry about the less vocal constituents in our community.”
Nagle received a smattering of applause from a standing-room-only crowd in the Town Meeting Room—a mix of town and district officials, parents, kids and other residents voicing their points of view on the overall town spending plan for fiscal year 2019 as well as the $90.7 million Board of Education proposed budget specifically.
Following a final vote from the Board of Finance on Thursday, the budget will move to the Town Council for public hearings and final approval next month. During that stage, no money can be added to the budget. (The selectmen’s proposed operating budget may be seen here, the Board of Ed’s budget here.)
Most of those who took to the podium on Tuesday night spoke in favor of preserving the Board of Ed’s own proposed spending increase, officially 3.48 percent though likely to be reduced by the district (see below).
Noting that the Board of Ed’s percentage of the total town operating budget, at about 69 percent, has remained virtually unchanged in a decade, school board Chair Dionna Carlson said, “It is inaccurate and inflammatory to claim that the Board of Education budget is increasing at a greater rate than that of the town.”
“The growth of the FTEs [full time equivalents] in the district over the last 10 years also has been questioned. This is fair—but again, easily explained. Excluding security personnel and Special Ed staffing, the district added employees to either improve service to the district at the same cost or reduce the cost of a previously outsourced service. Every staffing decision at the Board of Ed undergoes rigorous cost-benefit analysis before a decision is made.”
As fellow Board of Ed member Penny Rashin also argued during the hearing (see below), Carlson said that everyone in the New Canaan Public Schools administration contributes to the top-rated quality of education for the system’s more than 4,200 students.
She listed several ways that the district already partners with the town to reduce and control spending—such as through joint bidding of healthcare insurance and, soon, switching four of five public to natural gas.
“We all understand the environment that we are in and will continue to find ways to reduce costs, but the cuts being proposed by this Board of Finance will significantly impact programming within the New Canaan Public Schools,” she said. “I urge you to reconsider these proposed cuts and I look forward to continuing to work together for the benefit of our students, parents and the community.”
Carlson and others referred to talks among finance board members of a $1.3 million reduction to the Board of Ed spending plan.
Jennifer Richardson, the Board of Ed’s secretary and top vote-getter among school board candidates in last year’s election, as well as a New Canaanite since the seventh grade herself who now has kids at Saxe and the high school, said the budget as presented by the school board already has been pared down.
“I am just concerned, I am concerned, and then if we go to a million [dollars] that is definitely curriculum,” Richardson said. “That is class size.”
While on the Board of Education, Richardson said, she has seen Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi and his team “meticulously put together these budgets, so purpose-driven and all for the kids, just to make sure that they get the best education possible.”
One of those kids, New Canaan High School freshman Olivia West, described the Board of Ed’s spending plan as an investment that is “necessary.”
“I am a product of a school system that consistently delivers excellence in education as proven by top-of-the-state test scores and rankings,” West said.
“We moved here when I was in preschool specifically so that my brothers and I could go to New Canaan Public Schools. I have had a great experience. In Saxe, I completed The Challenge Program and was involved in the student leadership team.”
As a freshman, West said she’s taking AP and Honors courses as well as playing three sports and participating in Model UN.
“If the Board of Education has to cut $1.3 million, as proposed, it would require significant reductions to programs and staff,” she said. “I’m not sure which of these programs would be cut. But these extras are what made my educational experience so special, along with phenomenal teachers. So, on behalf of 4,200 students in New Canaan Public Schools, I urge you to consider to invest in our schools.”
Luizzi during the meeting discussed a total of approximately $500,000 that might be subtracted from his original proposed budget, backed in January by the Board of Ed, without affecting programming. Those items include a 5 percent reduction in workers’ compensation premiums ($106,000), an assumption of increased estimated turnover savings ($100,000, about three positions, added to the three that already figure into the budget), $103,000 in maintenance costs that may be deferred and $27,000 in WAN charges increased from the town. He also identified other areas where more modest reductions to the spending plan could be realized, such as putting off a purchase of hand dryers, document reproduction services and furniture.
Board of Finance Vice Chairman Bob Spangler thanked Luizzi for his responsiveness in looking so carefully through his budget.
“I am very satisfied with the operational number,” he said.
Board of Finance member Colleen Baldwin, referring to the group’s guideline at the start of budget season to department heads of a 2 percent spending increase, called that figure into question as a useful guideline in the near future, given what surely will be less revenue for the town next fiscal year from property taxes.
“I am uncomfortable—we as a board have discussed this to reach out to either the Board of Ed or the town in general for a commitment to not go over 2 percent over the next two to five years,” Baldwin said. “I don’t’ know what that is based on because I don’t’ know what the future holds. Our guideline of 2 percent did not even include the SALT [state and local tax], the addition of SALT in the tax code.”
She continued: “From my standpoint, we need to be far more conservative going forward. I am not as worried about 2018-19 budget that we are talking about here, but rather this conversation 12 months from now where we may be in a situation where the Grand List has maybe gone down $300 million. Which means the mill rate will change. We only have one, and the taxpayers that will get the redistribution of that tax issue will be property values below—I will say $2 million, I am not in the real estate business, but I am probably not far off. They will bear a bigger burden of the tax increase than the higher-priced homes that were reduced in value. So we may be in a situation 12 months from now where we may have to say, ‘It’s zero.’ ‘It’s 1 percent.’ We don’t know. Maybe the outlook is more positive. Maybe 2 percent is not an issue, I will certainly keep my glass half full for that. But I would not as the Board of Finance lay down a 5-year 2 percent growth commitment across the board. I do not think that is based in good fiscal prudence.”
New Canaan resident James Basch, a parent with kids in the public schools, referred to an analysis from the Board of Finance chairman in noting that over the last 12 years, enrollment is up about 4 percent while spending is up 35 percent and headcount is up 9 percent.
“Over the last 10 years, education spending is up 30 percent while for the vast majority of people in this audience, your property values are down over that same timeframe,” Basch said.
As such, the overall town budget should come down year-over-year, rather than increase.
“After the property assessment revaluation in October of this year, the need to cut variable expenses will become more pronounced,” Basch said. “In the first selectman’s budget in February, Kevin Moynihan posited that the Grand List could be down several hundred million dollars. To put that into context, our Grand List is around $8.1 billion right now. If in fact it winds up being several hundred million dollars—which seems reasonable, our property values are down—that would rep roughly a high single-digit cut in our Grand List. What that means is to balance our budget, if our Grand List goes down by that much, given that property taxes are the vast majority of what the Board of Finance works with, they are going to have to increase our mill rate significantly.”
As Baldwin would note, homes of median or lesser value in New Canaan could see property taxes rise—as much as 7, 8 or 9 percent, Basch said—unless there’s a corollary change in spending.
“I think that [possible tax increase] is going to have a huge negative impact on many households in New Canaan,” he said.
Others who addressed the finance board included Richard Vachula, who criticized the Board of Ed for what he described as blindly rubber-stamping the superintendent’s proposed budget, and Brendan Hayes, a Board of Ed member. He underscored that some 81 percent of the proposed school budget is comprised of fixed costs, namely, salaries and healthcare funding.
Rashin described New Canaan’s as the “premier school district in Connecticut” and noted that the schools “cannot rest on our laurels or we will start to fall behind.”
The schools’ continued excellence, she said, “depends on our having a robust program, academic and co-curriculars, excellent teachers and they need to be supported by reading and math specialists and aides.”
And it depends heavily on “a strong leadership team,” Rashin said.
In budget discussions, school board members often are asked about whether the administration can be cut, she said.
“I think that sort of comes out of a feeling of, ‘We don’t want to cut teachers, we don’t want to affect the classroom, but can’t you cut some of this administration?’ What I can tell you is that our administrators are educators and the work they do impacts the experience that every student has in the classroom. It is the administrators who steps in when a student has a problem or a crisis. And one student’s issue can take many, many hours to solve.”
Town resident Tindley Gilbert, who described herself as an entrepreneur and volunteer with four kids under 10, said she and her family moved to New Canaan recently for its “first-class public education.”
“We loved everything that New Canaan had to offer, the quaint downtown, the gorgeous landscapes, the various nonprofits of which we have already become very involved, and the kind people,” she said. “But far and away, the most important driver to our decision to move to New Canaan over other towns in Fairfield County that we looked at, and Westchester, was its schools. I think it’s fair to say that New Canaan’s reputation precedes itself. Yes, even internationally. Just ask the over 300 members of the Women’s International Group here in town who now live in New Canaan. While there are many factors that go into choosing a community—proximity to work, town amenities, taxes—I believe that the single most important factor for families moving to a community like New Canaan is the educational opportunities it provides its youngest residents.”