The Town of Wallingford has begun building a budget for the next fiscal year, and, as is customary, the Board of Education is the first out of the gate with their proposal. Two recent articles in the Record-Journal concerning their work in this important process are the motivation for this column.
The one published on February 22nd covered a discussion of separating out capital spending from instructional spending. For most, this topic would seem really esoteric and irrelevant, but, on the contrary, it speaks to the important matter of transparency. The other that appeared in February 25th’s edition speaks to the budget itself and the priorities that the municipal government sets. Let me elaborate:
Capital Spending: According to the R-J article, Board Chair Roxane McKay, with encouragement from Superintendent Menzo and agreement from several board members, said that “… separating the capital projects from the rest of the budget is a way to lessen the percentage of the increase being sought.” In this era where our state government moves Medicaid spending “off budget” and the feds routinely move huge chunks of spending “off budget” so they can flim-flam the public into believing that they are keeping budget increases in check, my first instinct was to say: “Please, Roxane, Say it Ain’t So.” We have come to expect that lack of transparency and candor in Hartford and Washington. Surely that budgeting sleight-of-hand has not arrived here.
After conversations with both the Board Chair and another Board member, I am confident that the final budget that was described to have a 4.36 percent increase was devoid of such “hide the pea” shenanigans. True, the $500K requested for the Lyman Hall track was moved, but Town of Wallingford Comptroller Jim Bowes expressed no skepticism at that change.
And, as far as I know, there was no attempt to move such routine maintenance items as pothole repair, curbing and sidewalk construction into a separate budget — at least in this budget. The conversation to make such carve-outs in future budgets remains for another day. If that should come to pass, then it would be incumbent on both the BOE and the media to present percentage increases combining the capital and operational budgets as is done presently so that the taxpayers know the real total being spent.
Which brings me to the second topic: Governmental Priorities. The topic of shifting education spending around piqued my curiosity about just what is the total spent to educate our kids. What other additional money – money not included in this current year’s $91,255,111 education budget — should be added from other sources to get a true picture?
I got my answer from Comptroller Bowes. Without going into ossifying, headache-inducing detail, here is the answer: 1) $4.8 million in state and federal grants; 2) $2.7 million in general government spending for non-certified pensions, property insurance and crossing guards; 3) $2.8 million in principal and interest to pay for the two building renovations done some years back; and 4) a one-time expenditure of $700K for building safety, security and building code updates.
So when it’s all said and done, $102,260,174 from the local, state and federal government sources is devoted this fiscal year to educating our children in the public school system. And, I might add, that does not include the multi-million annual teacher pension obligations assumed by the State of Connecticut.
I am not suggesting for a minute that this money isn’t well managed and well spent. Our school system and the people who make it work produce a very good product with these resources, and are earnestly and sincerely always trying to improve on that product.
But it is very important to present the full picture. These numbers demonstrate that Wallingford residents make education a huge priority, so it is equally important to present them in a transparent and understandable manner to all of us who ultimately foot the bill.
Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford Town Councilor.