The Town Council during an emotionally charged meeting Thursday voted 8-4 in favor of a spending plan for next fiscal year that effectively forestalls long-discussed changes to New Canaan Public Schools start times.
The legislative body’s bipartisan vote in favor of an overall budget of $152.2 million represents an increase of just .19% over projected spending for the current fiscal year.
Though the budget also includes a 2.5% year-over-year increase to district spending (exclusive of healthcare savings), it’s still about $1 million less than what the Board of Education had requested of the town funding bodies.
The shortfall means the Board of Ed can’t pay for additional school buses and attendant staff needed to implement a proposed new start times schedule—a consequence that district leaders and some councilmen understood following discussions held in recent days, according to Town Council Chair John Engel.
In voting in favor of the budget, Engel and others said they’re convinced that New Canaan adolescents should start school later, but added that the wide economic uncertainty due to COVID-19 means now is the wrong time to introduce significant new transportation costs. (Councilman Cristina A. Ross noted that the Town Council technically approves funding for the school board but doesn’t dictate how it’s spent.)
“This has been a very difficult decision for all of us,” Engel said during the meeting, held via videoconference. “I know it may not appear to be so. But I’m not sure I would have made this decision in December when you presented this budget. I am not sure I would have made his decision a month ago when the Board of Finance approved their budget.”
Engel acknowledged that the Board of Education and “several hundred letter-writing parents” impressed upon all 12 Town Council members how important it is to New Canaan teens’ health to get them more sleep, as per established science and medical recommendations. Faced with the prospect of receiving about $1 million less than requested, district officials in recent days returned to some Town Council members with a spending plan reduced by $300,000 that still allowed for the changed start times, Engel said. But the legislative body voted 8-4 against a motion from Councilman Mark Grzymski to preserve that funding.
Engel lauded the efforts of Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi, Director of Finance and Operations Dr. Jo-Ann Keating and Chair Katrina Parkhill to find a workable spending plan.
“I cannot respect them any more highly and I am sorry that the conclusion is not what you wanted, but I believe a majority of us felt it had to be based on the circumstances were were in,” he said.
In addition to Engel, those voting in favor of the budget were Vice Chair and Secretary Rich Townsend, Steve Karl, Maria Naughton, Ross, Penny Young, Liz Donovan and Mike Mauro. In addition to Gryzmski, those voting against it were Vice Chair Sven England, Robin Bates-Mason and Tom Butterworth.
After studying the matter for about three years—conducting surveys, holding informational sessions and hiring multiple consultants—the Board of Ed proposed a new start times scenario that would see the elementary schools start at 7:50 a.m., seventh- through 12th-graders start at 8:30 a.m. and the fifth and sixth grades start at 9:15 a.m.
Those in favor of the change argued that it’s the place of the superintendent and school board—not the Town Council—to make health-related decisions for students. They also argued that failing to fund the transportation costs associated with new start times sends a bad message to current and prospective residents and marginalizes a high-performing superintendent and school district that already delivers great value for what it costs.
“I am very uncomfortable with this situation,” Gryzmski said. “I think a lot of people in town are.”
Englund pushed back on Ross’s assertion about how the Town Council isn’t really telling the Board of Ed that it can’t change start times as proposed, calling that “a fig leaf.”
“We know for certain that if we make a $1 million cut tonight that we will have made a decision about star times,” England said, adding that his fellow councilmen “need to to think about where we stand in our jobs as representatives of the voting public.”
In addressing the question of what parents and taxpayers want, Butterworth noted that letters submitted recently to the Town Council were about “10 to 1” in favor of making the start time changes.
Young said that the Town Council must be “careful” in extrapolating from such letters because “you have groups that organize their letter-writing.”
In response, Butterworth said, “What the hell is wrong with that, Penny? What’s wrong with that? It’s a democracy. Will you please stop criticizing democracy?”
Grzymski echoed him, saying, “That’s democracy.”
Those who favored the budget not only cited an uncertain economy and alarmingly high rates of unemployment claims, but also noted that many New Canaanites have voiced concerns about elementary school kids starting before 8 a.m.
“There has never been a sufficient response from anybody,” Mauro said.
He added, “It is our obligation to watch the money that we are spending.”
“It is $1 million of taxpayer money,” Mauro said. “The town is clearly divided on it. It is more than just the parents in town. It is everybody in town. Are we spending this $1 million the right way?”
Asked whether she wanted to address the Town Council, Parkhill said she had nothing to add.
First Selectman Kevin Moynihan, a guest at the meeting, said that he’s been meeting with the chair of the finance board to figure out whether town spending could be reduced this quarter and in the first quarter of the new fiscal year, which starts July 1.
“For those looking to cut more, we will react to the economy come July 1,” Moynihan said.
[Editor’s Note: This article was updated to give proper attribution to one direct quote.]