“Somewhere along the line that’s too much, way too much” BOE Chairman Henry Coleman said on March 28, 1974 about the school budget of $8 million, now $90 million in 2019. That is a 5.65% compound annual growth rate. Inflation over the same period was 3.65%. The main reason for this is the compounding effect of the CBA-negotiated annual COLA increases when combined with the step increases in teacher pay. Wage rates in Connecticut are much higher than comparable states. When you add in step increases you’re up to 4.5% and 5%.
This is budget week: Tuesday’s public hearing and Thursday’s final Town Council vote. What happened and didn’t happen this year? The Board of Finance held the overall budget to a 1.89% increase. The town operating expense rose 1.33% and after contingency and pension that increase is 1.69%. On the Board of Education side we see they cut the requested $3 million increase by $900,000, resulting in a 2.07% operating increase and a 2.45% overall increase. I never got the answer to my question, “Show us what 2% looks like”. The BOE wants to pick that number together. Ok, we will.
Why didn’t we cut the Education budget $400,000 further to bring the budget within the 2% guidance? The Board of Finance said too much, too soon and the Town Council agreed. Second, the schools healthcare costs spiked up $568,000 this year. Taking this out of the equation means the Education budget is being held to 2.07%. Finally, we heard the Superintendent say “redeployment of staff through attrition” which means a commitment to reducing headcount gradually. That’s the key. It’s what we needed to hear. It took 10 years to add 64 new staff positions. It may take a few years to reduce by that many.
The Town Council is drafting an ordinance requiring the town of New Canaan to annually prepare a Long Term Financial Plan (LTFP) in which we set our financial assumptions and goals for the next 5 years. (Hint: That corridor should be set at 2.0%-2.5% annual growth.) Instead of a BOF guidance letter in October there will be a collaboration between boards starting this month: the Boards of Education, Finance, Selectmen and Town Council deciding what we can afford now.
Town departments requested $8.6 million in Capital, down from $11.1 million. The Selectmen cut it to $7.9 million. Finance cut it to $7.7 million. The Town Council is eyeing another $300,000 in cuts at the expense of new sidewalks, a paddle court and projects at Irwin Park. Waveny’s $1 million “placeholder” should survive but comes with a great deal of scrutiny and public input.
Finally, it is interesting to note that Board of Ed member Hazel Hobbs is quoted in that 1974 article saying “I guess it’s just a question of priorities.” Indeed. Forty-four years later Hazel Hobbs is still fighting for school excellence. Thank you for your service, Hazel. This budget has worn me out. I can’t do this 43 more times.