Despite earlier reluctance, the Board of Education asserted this week that it is interested "in finding efficiencies and continuing to work cooperatively and collaboratively" with the town, Chairman Hazel Hobbs said in a letter to First Selectman Robert Mallozzi.
The message was sent Tuesday, four days after the New Canaan News reported the board had indicated in an earlier letter that it was not willing to share with town departments a number of services it considers noneducational.
In light of new state legislation -- Public Act 13-60, which encourages more cooperation between boards of education and town departments -- the first selectman and an ad hoc committee, comprised of Town Council and Board of Finance members, asked the Board of Education in February to consider a number of areas where they thought cost efficiencies would result if merged. Some of the suggestions included information technology, building maintenance, finance, school security, human resources and health insurance coverage.
In her initial response June 5, Hobbs said the Board of Education did not see the benefits of sharing more services than it already does because of its different priorities and obligations mandated by the state.
In that letter, Hobbs wrote, for instance, that the board "does not wish to consolidate" maintenance services, human resources or security matters with the town; "wishes to maintain its separate capacity" when dealing with the district's finances; does "not see any near-term possibility for a joint health insurance program"; and does "not consider information technology to be a noneducational service."
In a change of tone, this week's letter states the board is open to discussions and wants to find more synergies with the town.
"The Board of Education wants to reassure the elected town bodies, the people of New Canaan, and you that we also want to continue to keep the town taxes down while keeping the quality of the schools high," Hobbs wrote. "The town boards and the school board have worked well together to do this for many years and this year all boards worked especially hard to solve many difficult issues together."
Mallozzi said the board's independence is costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars every year. The first selectman said he would like the board and the town to share an IT desk, purchase all kinds of supplies together and work on building maintenance together.
Hobbs noted that the board still see obstacles in consolidating services that directly affect students.
"We are concerned and continue to see challenges in consolidation of some areas due to the nature of the differences in town responsibilities and the mandatory requirements and state statutes that govern many of our responsibilities," she wrote.
In an interview last week, Hobbs said there's potential for synergies between the town and the board as long as there are enough discussions on the details. When it comes to building maintenance, for instance, she noted that the water temperature in the schools' restrooms has to stay at a high enough temperature to kill germs. If the water is shut off, she said, "we have to close the schools and send the students home."
"It's critical that if somehow something happens to shut off the water, or the heat of the water, that's a No. 1 priority. In most office buildings, that would not be a number-one priority."
Thomas Mooney, the board's attorney, noted that the definition of noneducational is at the heart of the discussion.
"Given that all funds the Board of Education spends are directly related to its mission of educating New Canaan students, there is no natural category of expenditure that can be called `non-educational,'" he wrote in a recent memo to the board. "Discussion in advance over what is or is not a `non-educational service' may be beneficial to both parties. However, even if there is disagreement as to what services fall within the scope of Public Act 13-60, the bottom line is that the Board of Education is not obligated to accept any such recommendations."
Mooney, who in May hosted a workshop on consolidation, reminded board members that they maintain control of their budget.
"The new statute does not change the long-standing rule that the Board of Education may spend the funds appropriated to it `by and in its discretion,' " he wrote in the memo.
Hobbs said the board has "carefully examined" the list of the committee's suggested areas for consolidation and noted that some of them have been successful in the past. Such areas include consolidation of purchasing and procurement in maintenance and information technology, cooperation on building maintenance and public works projects, cooperation on Freedom of Information requests and collaboration on security issues, she said.
Hobbs said the board is interested in continuing dialogue on such topics as they are part of the 2014-15 district goals and will be part of the board's annual goals review scheduled for this summer.
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