The Time for Municipal Line-Item Veto of Education budgets Has Come

The Time for Municipal Line-Item Veto of Education budgets Has Come

By Steven Werbner, Town Manager of Tolland

I began my career in local government in 1976 and in the forty years since that time local governments and Board of Educations for the most part operate in the same manor, independently.   Sure there are cases where some functions have been combined and even in some cases schools have regionalized but that is the exception rather than the rule.  Connecticut has long been the state of steady habits, what we have done in the past is what we will do in the future. Budget realities at all levels of Government are making it less likely that the Government structure we have in place will be sustainable in the long run. 

At the local level the inability for most Towns to expand their tax base at a rate equal to budgetary increases along with continued reduction in state aid means constant increases to the property tax and/or reductions in municipal and school budgets.  The ways in which we do our business have to change if we are to remain competitive as individual municipalities and a state as a whole.

I was originally asked to comment on the ability of local governments to have line item review of non-curriculum related accounts. I do not believe in that methodology either for review of local government or education budgets.  The focus should be on functions and not line items. Therefore my approach is to encourage the merging of non-curriculum related functions and putting them under the operational control of local governments.  The core function of local government is to manage a wide range of diverse functions from accounting to solid waste collection and overseeing additional non-curriculum related functions is well within the ability of local government.

The most obvious justification for this sea change is to avoid duplication of effort.  Local officials have as their primary focus the fiscal well-being of their operations and general administrative oversight of a myriad of functions.  This is not a slight on Board of Educations but rather acknowledgment that their focus and rightly so is the education of our children.  Allow municipalities to manage operational functions of both organizations and savings will occur from the cost of services being integrated more fully with other similar services.  Why do we within the same community have different purchasing rules for the Town and Board of Education as well as bid procedures?  Why do we have different Personnel rules and provisions within collective bargaining agreements? Why do we have separate labor attorneys and different health benefit packages? Why do we have trained Public Works Officials but in many cases they have no jurisdiction over maintenance of school grounds or facilities? Why do we have Finance Offices duplicated within both entities?

While I have been a strong opponent of State mandates it may be necessary for this concept to be embraced state wide within a reasonable time period for there to be incentives attached for those towns moving forward with combined activities. I certainly understand the strong desire of most Boards of Educations to maintain their independence and in order to allow that to occur we are going to need to look at all means possible to streamline the cost of the most expensive and one of the most important functions of Town Government.

Oversight by towns back to top

Other activities such as fleet operations, Information Services, Library Services, School Crossing Guards and School Resource Offices all would seem to lend themselves to oversight by a municipality.  It can be argued that the duplication of these activities between organizations within the same town and on a broader scale between Towns and Board of Educations within a certain geographical area represent an unnecessary duplication and burden on local and state resources.

By relieving School districts of the obligation for overseeing non curriculum related items will allow certified employees of the district more time to concentrate on matters of primary concern. With potentially shrinking budgets the allocation of resources will have to be more directed and any time spent during the course of the day by trained certified staff should be in their areas of expertise and not on administrative matters tangential to their primary focus.

Municipal managers are not desirous of absorbing control of education budgets or operations but are willing to lend their expertise in managing non curriculum related matters as a recognition of the difficulties Boards of Educations will have in the future with reduced student population, increasing operational costs and reduced state aid.  Thomas B. Mooney, Esq. author of Connecticut School Law identified the concern of Board of Educations to this approach in this quote from page 75,  “Everyone has an opinion on how to run the schools and local municipal officials are no exception.  Towns have tried various ways to dictate how local boards of education should expend funds appropriated to them, but the principle that school boards may exercise their independent discretion in deciding upon school expenditures remains intact”.   

Town and Board of Education officials, in order to survive the changing landscape will like never before have to develop or renew their faith in each other to mitigate the impression that a new paradigm for operations is being done so merely to grab power. 

Rather, it is a necessary means of survival that will in addition go a long way with demonstrating to the public that all municipal officials, both Town and Board of Education, work together in the best interest of their constituents.  While I have been a strong opponent of State mandates it may be necessary for this concept to be embraced state wide within a reasonable time period for there to be incentives attached for those towns moving forward with combined activities. I certainly understand the strong desire of most Boards of Educations to maintain their independence and in order to allow that to occur we are going to need to look at all means possible to streamline the cost of the most expensive and one of the most important functions of Town Government.