A Statement on the Budget
Many people have been highly critical of my decision, and the decision of my Republican colleagues, to forward Superintendent Cooper’s budget request to the Board of Finance and Taxation and the Mayor without first making cuts to his proposal. People have accused me of being blinded by “group think” and of being “corrupted” by the other members of the Board of Education. I would like to explain clearly the reason I voted the way I did.
A Request vs. an Adopted Budget
I was very specific when I said that I would support this request from the superintendent that I viewed it as merely that, a request. It is a sizable request for sure, but it is also a request based on genuine needs within our district. The majority of the requested increase is to address contractual obligations that the Board is bound by. Our transportation contract as well as other service contracts were negotiated under a previous board and a previous administration and they are not favorable to New Britain. Unfortunately until the contracts run out there is little we can do to remediate these issues. The other major increases fall into areas where the money would certainly help. For example, the budget proposal contains 19 new reading teachers to work heavily in the elementary schools to address our poor literacy rates. It also contains funding to purchase additional ChromeBooks (a highly versatile slimmed down laptop computer). Not only are these ChromeBooks being used as part of classroom instruction, but they are also fundamental for the new online testing that is replacing the CMTs.
These are all reasonable requests, and if the city had an unlimited well of money these would all be top educational priorities to fund. There is little in the superintendent’s request that could be called frivolous spending. We are not spending money on gold plated urinals, there is no money in the budget for helicopters for truancy officers to patrol our streets. In light of some of the technological and material deficiencies facing our district it is a well structured and focused proposal.
That all said, this merely represents a request, a demonstration of some of the real needs of our district. This needs to be balanced by the city’s ability to finance the costs of education and municipal services. Our city charter clearly delineates the roles and responsibilities of departments in the budgetary process. It is their job to produce requests in early January based on their department’s goals and needs. It is then the job of the Board of Finance and Taxation to review those budget requests and to make suggestions for changes based on the arguments presented to them at a series of very long and detail focused meetings. Following those discussions the Board of Finance and Taxation proposes a budget and then the Mayor presents a budget to the Common Council who may then amend or accept the Mayor’s proposal before voting on the budget.
My view, from serving at on the Board of Finance and Taxation, is that any department should focus on the needs of their department when making their requests to Board of Finance and Taxation and the Mayor. Were we in a town where the budget process operated in a different sequence or where the practice was for the Board of Education’s request to be honored by the Executive office, then it would be a different matter. However, within the budget process of New Britain I feel the Board of Education would be remiss in making substantial cuts to a request that is legitimately based on the needs of the students and is laid out in a clear and concise manner.
Too Many Unknown Variables
At this time there is far to much that is unknown about what sort of funding the Board of Education will receive from the State via the ECS Grant. Likewise, we have not yet seen if the latest decisions in CJEF case may affect the legislature or cause them to attempt altering the ECS Funding Formula. A substantial portion of the Superintendent’s request could end up being funded by the State at no additional costs to the New Britain property owners. There is a long time between a January request and a May adopted budget, but since New Britain’s budget process begins so early in the calendar year we are forced to present a request before we have all the necessary information.
Another major unknown variable is staffing and retirements. Personnel cost is one of the highest budget categories in any school system, that is what happens when you run a service based business. Typically teachers are asked to give notice of retiring in early to mid January, but many teachers often do not give notice until February or even as late as April. This has a large effect on the fiscal bottom line. Again, because our budget process operates so early in the year, we are left not knowing the full effect of these staffing changes until after the budget request has been made.
The Bottom Line
I have stated repeatedly in the media, and I will say it here again; I fully support whatever difficult decision Mayor Stewart and the Common Council must make regarding the Board of Education appropriation. If the finances of the city are so terrible that all the Common Council and the Mayor can afford to do is pass along whatever increase we may get from the state I understand that. Their chief priority and charge is to look out for the long-term fiscal health, safety, and security of the city. My role on the Board of Education is to advocate for the most effective and efficient use of taxpayer funds to improve the quality of education. I have every confidence that the Mayor and Common Council will do their job.
In May when the budget is adopted by the Common Council and the Mayor then the Board of Education will need to decide what to prioritize from Superintendent Cooper’s request, and what will have to wait for another time. That is when my duty to make sure each dollar is spent to the fullest will come into play. I invite every taxpayer to reserve judgement of my integrity and abilities until then.