Sparked by new legislation that requires more cooperation between boards of education and town departments, the New Canaan Board of Education conducted a workshop Tuesday to discuss the pros and cons of consolidating services with the town.
The board's attorney, Thomas Mooney, of Shipman & Goodwin, told the board that it should first work with the town to determine what it considers "noneducational services," since educational ones are a responsibility of the board alone.
The General Assembly added another step to the budget process last year with "An Act Concerning Consolidations of Noneducational Services," which requires the Board of Finance to "make spending recommendations and suggestions" to the Board of Education no later than 10 days after the latter submits its budget request. The Board of Education may accept or reject the suggestions and shall provide a written explanation of the reason for any rejection.
In light of these changes, the Board of Finance recently asked the Board of Education to look into ways to consolidate noneducational services with the town in areas like information technology, school security, human resources, building maintenance and purchasing and procurement.
But Mooney said it is difficult to draw a line between "educational services" and "noneducational services." One example is snow plowing.
"That's as clearly a noneducational item as I can think of," he said. "But whose snow is plowed when and how we get the kids into the school and how the teachers park directly affects education."
In a memo to the board, Mooney said educational services should remain a responsibility of the board.
"Prompt hiring of qualified employees directly affects the quality of the educational program, as does establishment of working conditions," he wrote.
He also noted that any discussions between school and town officials would not change the board's responsibility as a state entity.
"Discussion concerning such recommendations invites a constructive dialog with the town, but it does not affect the statutory right of the board of education to make its decisions independently in light of its statutory responsibility to maintain the public schools in New Canaan," Mooney wrote in the memo.
Board Vice Chairman Scott Gress said he hopes the discussions help eliminate a problem boards of education face when requesting funding.
"There's a tool of persuasion that the town can use, which is to budget to a level that encourages us to follow the suggestions that they're making," Gress said.
"By having our wings sort of clipped, it becomes a decision on our part as `do we make educational programming cuts or do we make a cut that is perhaps not educational (and instead) that follows the suggestions?' "
Mooney said this is a problem everywhere in the state. "You have to make do with what you have, but you decide how to spend it," he said.
The attorney said towns and boards of education disagree in many instances because they have different priorities.
The town's focus, he told the board, "appropriately so, is on the dollars. Your focus is within those dollars, `how do you achieve the best result for your children?'"
Mooney said it can be a challenge to reconcile those differences.
"Sometimes what you purchase is not necessarily the least expensive, but rather it may in your view, the most effective, and that's your choice to make," he said.
One of Mooney's suggestions, in case the board and town find areas to work together, was to have the funds for such service appropriated anyway so it's still under its control.
Mooney told the board the new legislation aims to find savings, which he said is a shared goal between all town and school organizations.
"Quality education is the hallmark of New Canaan, but all involved share the goal that it be provided in a cost-effective manner," he wrote to the board.