In April the Town Council was asked to make a choice. Should we provide funding for start time changes to increase sleep for 2,700 students, thereby improving their health and safety? Or, should we reduce property taxes on median-value homes by about $11 a month—the equivalent of 36 cents a day?
By an 8-4 vote, the Town Council chose the 36-cent solution.
We believe when families move to New Canaan an implicit bargain is struck. The Board of Education agrees to provide great schools while taxpayers agree to provide sufficient funds to keep them great. The 36-cent solution prevented taxpayers from keeping that bargain. We hope examining the reasons for the Town Council vote will lead to better decisions in the future.
After three years of study, the Board of Education decided to move start times at Saxe and the high school to 8:30 a.m. or later in response to recommendations from the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Similar changes had been made in Greenwich, Wilton, Norwalk and Westport. The benefits to students would have included: strengthened immune systems, improved emotional health and lower rates of depression, fewer injuries from car accidents, and greater mental acuity. Prominent local pediatrician Bill Flynn said, “No decision I am aware of . . . has ever had the power to improve the lives of almost all of the children in town as much as this decision on school start times.” The changes would have gone into effect in August.
Some families would have been inconvenienced by the schedule changes, but most seemed to approve. Of 459 emails sent to the Town Council on the subject, only 62 said the changes were a bad idea. Critics said we can’t expect all 2,700 students to get more sleep, but even if only half do, the benefits would be well worth the cost.
Members of the Town Council majority insisted their purpose was merely to cut $1,143,000 (in addition to a Board of Finance cut of $752,000) from the school budget in order to enforce a percentage cap on spending growth. School leaders warned that a cut of this magnitude would force them to cancel the start time initiative and cancel it they did.
It is and should be a core purpose of the Town Council to review, critique and approve financial matters to ensure the Town and the Schools operate effectively and efficiently. It’s also true that New Canaan wants great schools and can afford to maintain them. While Town Council members no doubt were sincere in their attempt to balance these priorities, some may have been swayed by two popular myths.
The first myth is school budget cuts help solve major financial problems facing the community at large. In fact, tax relief of 36 cents a day is nowhere near enough to alleviate economic hardships (from COVID-19 or otherwise), influence home values, or persuade older residents to remain in New Canaan. Nor do such small amounts provide a meaningful hedge against the risk that Hartford could transfer liabilities–such as teacher pensions–to New Canaan. School budget cuts do provide a modicum of tax relief to individuals, but that’s the only benefit against which we should weigh the downside.
The second myth, exposed this year, is school leaders can find a way to absorb arbitrary spending caps of almost any magnitude without impacting their ability to maintain great schools. Critics often cite a history of “inexorable spending increases” to explain why they believe school spending is unnecessary. Let’s look at the facts.
Cost increases in the school budget in recent years have been modest. But for the Town Council cut, the 5-year annual growth rate would have been 1.7%. Reflecting the cut, the 5-year growth rate will be 1.36%.
New Canaan continues to spend less than comparable school districts, as shown here for the year ending June 30, 2020.
Area District Per-Student Spending
|School District||Per-Pupil Expenses|
Our numbers relative to other towns will decline further due to the Town Council’s decision to cut school spending by 0.6%, the first year-over-year cut in memory. By comparison, Wilton and Greenwich are keeping their school budgets flat this year, while four other towns approved school budget increases: Ridgefield (+1.75%), Weston (+2.9%), Darien (+3.4%) and Westport (+3.4%).
The majority of the Town Council seems to believe that the general public supports cutting the school budget, but we urge them to read the results of the 2020 Community Survey. Respondents said the town should increase (27%) or at least retain (56%) current levels of school spending. Only 13.7% want us to spend less.
The survey also shows that 73% of respondents agreed that “Living in New Canaan is a good value for the taxes I pay and the services I receive.” People know the relationship between education quality and property taxes is more favorable here than in any wealthy suburb in Westchester County, Northern New Jersey, or Nassau and Suffolk Counties. This is borne out by an Aug. 7 New York Times article, “Leaving New York: How To Choose The Right Suburb,” in which the author touts 17 homes in eight tri-state suburbs as particularly good values. The average mill rate in these towns is 72% higher than New Canaan’s.
The New Canaan public schools are earning universal praise for the quality and quantity of education they are providing during the coronavirus pandemic. If it weren’t for their reputation as great schools, the current boom in home sales may not be occurring. If we want our schools to maintain their stellar reputation, we need to stop undermining their effectiveness with arbitrary and inflexible spending caps. In some cases, caps can provide helpful guidance, but actual budgets should reflect the values and priorities our community embraces.
Tom Butterworth (Republican) and Mark Grzymski (Democrat) are Town Council members who voted against the cut to the 2020-2021 school budget.