Questions About Town Approach To School Budget
To the Editor:
During the 3/4/21 Board of Finance (BOF) meeting finalizing the education and town budgets, the Board of Education chair posed a question prompting larger questions about how the town approaches the school budget.
This year, BOF has two methods for school budget reduction. One is an actual reduction and one is reduce and replace. Reduce and replace is a practice whereby BOF, to keep the tax increase as low as possible, reduces the school budget by an additional amount that the town subsequently replaces from the $15M town fund balance (contingency fund).
Although the Board of Education is mostly funded by local taxes, it is an entity of the state and its budget is separate from that of the town per town charter. The BOE chair indicated, per the CT Office of Legislative Research, that reduce and replace is not the way to fund education budgets. She asked if this will be a long-term town practice for the school budget as was done last year. The first selectman explained he’s using what was overtaxed in the prior year to mitigate the tax increase for the coming year. The Board of Finance chair indicated the town’s approach is a legislative concern but functionally it works and is not long-term.
But I wonder: Should we feel confident it’s not long-term when it’s an election year and board composition will change? Will the Charter Revision Committee affect the function/existence of BOF? Will Legislative Council agree to short-term?
Should the first selectman have a hand in the education budget when they are two separate entities with separate budgets, finance directors, and decision-making jurisdictions? Taking from town funds to replace deliberately removed school funds subjects the district to the first selectman and town boards’ willingness to replace them.
Should the school budget be employed as a tool for addressing the maxed-out town contingency fund? Fund balance is $1.5M over its cap. To be clear, this well-funded contingency is admirably why the town has a Triple-A bond rating. Some of that overfunding, though, is voter-approved education money from last year’s $1.3M BOE surplus given back to town by BOF. There is also $2.3M from the education cost sharing formula per BOE chair’s 9/23/20 Bee letter https://www.newtownbee.com/09232020/a-baffling-decision-by-the-board-of-finance/. This is state money given annually to towns for school funding. The town distributes to district and deposits the extra into town fund when money arrives after budget referendum. Is any of this overage earmarked for school spending other than via complex methods requiring further hoops of approval and entangling budgets for tax reduction? Why not appropriate funds directly from fund balance?
The response to BOE’s concern over separation and control of the budgets is worrisome and far from complete.
25 Horseshoe Ridge Road, Sandy Hook