The Board of Education caused a bit of a kerfuffle when it submitted its funding requests for the new fiscal year. For the first time ever, it highlighted a capital project in a separate portion of its budget. Councilor Tom Laffin noted this was a “complete change in philosophy.” A board member fired back that it would be a misrepresentation to suggest that all the money in the education budget was for education. Her point was that a lot of money is spent on school buildings and grounds, too.
Councilor Laffin nevertheless wondered whether there was a tactical advantage to this new approach. There is. First and foremost, it’s a matter of better optics: If the school district’s capital projects were separated from other costs to run the schools, they would be more visible, and easier to identify, for those who might find insight as a result of this new format. That comes at no extra charge.
The board also may hope that if larger capital projects were estimated separately, the entire budget might be better understood. That could encourage more funding for the purely educational component of the board’s mission.
The thinking could be, too, that bigger capital projects, if identified clearly, might be taken out of the education budget altogether and inserted instead in the town’s capital budget (displacing something else), or into a basket of projects that would get funding through bonding. More bonding, although not appropriate if done excessively, could ease the pressure on budgets and leave more wiggle room for education.
Finally, some may dream that many costs and responsibilities for buildings and grounds may one day be transferred to the department of public works, and paid through its budget. That would be a radical cultural change.
The very good news is that recent legislation may have a small but constructive role to play in this effort to help the board and taxpayers, too. A law passed in 2010 provides that in any year that the Board of Education has a surplus, the town may deposit that surplus into a separate non-lapsing account to be used by the board at any time. The amount transferred may not exceed one percent of the school board’s budget.
Our board typically runs a surplus of about $1 million per year. Any surplus not used before a year ends, would have to be returned to the town’s general fund. The board would lose the money. To prevent that, Wallingford’s board, like many across the state, at year-end, purchases supplies or services they will need the following fiscal year. This last-minute drive to use the left over cash before the fiscal year closes, isn’t always efficient, and doesn’t always lead to the best use of resources.
If, however, the board were empowered to keep some of its left over cash and have it deposited into its own dedicated account, it wouldn’t be pressured to make all of those quick, end-of-year purchases. The board would gain flexibility, achieve better planning, and be able to time purchases to take advantage of better prices. The board could also accumulate a sum that might help pay for capital projects, or address emergencies, or other non-budgeted, unforeseen expenses. The fund could have unlimited uses; it would be up to the board as to how the money should be spent. Or, the fund could be used only for capital projects designated by the board. The council could make added contributions to the fund as it sees fit, for example to help pay for an athletic complex at Lyman Hall High School.
The rationale for this law was that municipalities appropriate a fixed sum to run the schools. A board shouldn’t have to lose any of it merely because it managed its budget prudently and had cash left over at the end of the year.
The board’s initiative sparked a constructive dialogue. Let’s continue it in good faith.
Mike Brodinsky is a former town councilor, chairman of the School Roof Building Committee and host of public access show “Citizen Mike.”