Op-Ed: School Budget Cuts—Testing the Rhetoric

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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.

10 thoughts on “Op-Ed: School Budget Cuts—Testing the Rhetoric

  1. Well said, Tom. We selected New Canaan as our relocation from the West coast destination over 20 years ago because of the quality of the school system, and in more than 16 years of town government services I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s told me they moved here for the mil rate.

  2. Stop this Tom it’s just nonsense – read my letter in the NCADV of 3/01 “Ask tougher question of the BOE” I have no clue why a TC member let alone the head of the BOE committee would become the tool of certain people in our school system to keep getting more and more money — you will never get my vote again — and Jim K
    were you not on the BOE when they accumulated 5 million of taxes payers money — They could not spend the money we gave them
    and you were clueless to the facts

  3. Absolutely agree. As parents of 4th graders in New Canaan, I can fairly say that nearly every other parent I know has chosen this town based on the reputation of the school system. The schools are New Canaan’s primary ‘industry’ and it is foolish to consider short-changing them.

  4. First off the title of this article is very misleading. It’s not school budget cut, it’s lowering an increase year over year in the school’s budget from the roughly 4% increase Tom seems to want to a 2% increase or less. Here is an excellent analysis by the Board of Finance Chair, Todd Lavieri, that rebuffs many of Tom’s points and puts them in greater context.

    I would use the same data points that Todd thoughtfully articulated to make the argument that the Town Operating Budget should be down year over year. Much of the Operating Budget has unfortunate fixed cost increases but we should be making necessary cuts in variable costs. After the property assessment revaluation the need to cut variable expenses is becoming even more pronounced. In the “First Selectman’s Budget Message” in February Kevin Moynihan posited that the “Grand List could be down several hundred million dollars” for FY 2019-2020 after the revaluation. This seems reasonable given that the vast majority of property values in New Canaan are down since the last revaluation, and also over a 10 year and 15 year period. A drop of several hundred million dollars implies a year-over-year decrease in the Grand List of high single digit percent. Does this mean that mill rates will be going up year-over-year in FY 2019-2020 by high single digit percent to balance the budget? That would have a huge negative impact on many households in New Canaan, especially those with close to median value or lower valued homes that generally won’t be as effected by the revaluation as the higher-end homes that have taken more of a percentage hit in value. It will cause further exodus out of New Canaan with continued real estate inventory overhangs that decrease property values…leading to ever higher mill rates as an attempted offset. It’s a vicious cycle that parallels the downward spiral engulfing our state (for potential remedies take a look at the draft report from the Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth). In addition, a recent poll shows that a majority of New Canaan residents who participated in the poll want an overall town budget under a 1% increase year over year. This is despite the fact that many participants are likely unaware of the potential increases in mill rates in FY19-20.

    Speaking personally, I have two young kids in the New Canaan schools and my wife and I moved to New Canaan largely because of the school system. We care very much about the quality of the schools. New Canaan spends almost $21,000 a year per pupil. In Stamford, the town we came from, the cost is roughly $18,000. New Canaan doesn’t rank higher than Stamford (rankings are largely based on standardized test scores) because New Canaan teachers and administrators are excellent and Stamford’s are materially worse in my opinion, nor is it because of the extra $3,000 per pupil we spend. Over a strong $ per pupil amount, spending per pupil has diminishing returns. We have higher rankings because New Canaan parents are more invested in their kid’s education, we have a low percentage of English as a second language students (that affects test scores obviously), we have more parental involvement in the schools, and we by and large have more functional family units (less broken homes).

    Finally, let’s run this town with fiscal conservatism in mind to mitigate the issues that plague the state. That means if our assets (property values) go down we should seek ways of cutting spending (future liabilities) to not run continual deficits and spur higher taxes. Case in point, you mention the benefits of assistant principals Tom, but do we need 9 of them for 5 schools? I’m sure examples like that abound. I voted for you because I thought you had a fiscally conservative mindset. You are making me seriously question that.

  5. It is time for tough love and spending cuts as is implemented when a private sector business hits hard times. We need to stop tip toeing through the tulips with our Board of Education. It is appalling that 64 new administrative assistants were hired when the student body is not growing. Additionally if these new employees do not live in New Canaan their school age children can attend our schools free of charge. We the residents of New Canaan will foot a bill of $19,000 per student for those non residents. We did not need to keep over funding this prima-donna attitude. Amazing how we over thank the staff for doing the job they were hired to do. Many towns have exceptional schools with a much lower budget. Compared to other professions teaching is a part time job. Summers off, winter break, spring break, every holiday, no unpaid 10 to 18 hour days, un-presidented retirement and health benefits etc etc etc. Rating schools on test scores is not realistic. I can tell you from experience that New Canaan students are much less prepared for college and the real world than our peer schools. We put too much attention on test scores, ratings and not real world education.The special needs program is a disaster and emotionally, detrimental, with lack of college bound skill sets to the students involved. If the BOE was so concerned about our Town and the student body why then aren’t they willing to entertain give-backs instead of always going back to the well fore more?

  6. I wondered how long this conversation would go before someone started complaining about our teachers. Because I will absolutely disagree with those complaints. I knew NC teachers were excellent when I went through the school system myself here K-12, and I was definitely well-prepared for college, better than many kids from elite boarding schools were. More recently, through my two kids already through the NC school system and one still in, my opinion of our local teachers has only increased. These educators aren’t slackers. If you want to talk budget concerns, please do. But you need not belittle our teachers, or their profession, to do so. Some people in this town pay more for lawn care than they do for teachers; the difference is, one helps grow green grass, the other helps grow our kids’ better future.

    • Sure. I and my friends attended NYC public schools. 35 + students in a class, practiced on concrete for football and baseball. Guess what many star athletes like Ronnie Bli, Willie Randolph graduated from our high school. Owners of businesses, doctors, lawyers, police inspectors etc etc. Point is wasteful spending does not result in higher quality. No one knocked our educators. The point being made that they do the job they were hired to do and compensated extremely well for their efforts. We limit increases and funding to first responders who save lives but the wasteful spending habits of the BOE is untouchable in your eyes. That is the problem and why the waste continues in geometric proportions. The unfounded teachers pensions could bankrupt Connecticut. A fact of life.

      • Roy, I do not know whether Willie Randolph or other Brooklyn public high school graduates are bad spellers or, if they are, whether that has to do with their secondary school education. With that said, I would just note here that you are a notoriously bad speller—for example, it’s ‘Ronnie Blye’ not ‘Bli.’

  7. Upon graduation Ronnie Blye joined the British Navy and captained the HMS Bounty right ? Besides Randolph and Blye perhaps a more famous graduate of the same high school is noted civil rights leader and talk show host the Reverend Al Sharpton.

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