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Some on New Canaan Town Council critical of school spending and accounting

Published 12:56 pm, Saturday, April 6, 2013
  • Town Councilman Roger Williams led the charge in asking for more transparency and restraint in school budgets at the March 27, 2013 meeting. New Canaan, Conn. Photo: Tyler Woods
    Town Councilman Roger Williams led the charge in asking for more transparency and restraint in school budgets at the March 27, 2013 meeting. New Canaan, Conn. Photo: Tyler Woods

 

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Some Town Council members were critical of the estimated $226,000 earmarked for unarmed campus monitors at the schools and of approximately $3.4 million in internal funds not shown in the Board of Education's proposed budget for 2013-14 at its March 27, meeting.

In a much-debated and impassioned Feb. 28 vote, the council unanimously approved a special appropriation of $133,000 for monitors at the middle and elementary schools. Though many council members had strong reservations about the appropriation, some, like Councilman Steve Karl, took solace in the fact that the money was only for the remainder of this school year. He anticipated a future discussion with the BOE on whether to make the guards permanent after having gotten feedback from the district on their efficacy.

But with the inclusion of $226,000 for campus monitors in the next fiscal year's budget, which will be finalized April 9, before the monitors are even hired, the prospect of a discussion about the monitors seems to have evaporated.

At the council meeting on March 19, Councilman John Emert asked if the Board of Education was still planning on returning to the council to discuss the monitors for the 2013-14 school year.

"Hiring the campus monitors and how we go forward is going to be a Board of Ed decision," board Chairman Alison Bedula said at that meeting. "We certainly will not be asking for permission to do this, but we would be happy to report on progress."

That response didn't seem to be enough for some members of the Town Council last week, as Councilman Roger Williams suggested reducing the proposed education budget by $226,000 with the consideration that if the district decided the monitors were a worthy investment, it could come back and request a special appropriation.

The council took no action at the meeting, and will make a final decision April 9.

The other issue at hand was the accounting of internal district funds. Williams reported to the council that thanks to the Freedom of Information requests of a town resident, it's known that the district collects from students and spends about $3.4 million, which are not shown as either revenue or expenditures on the budget the BOE presented to the town.

"There's about $3.4 million of both revenue and expenses that aren't recorded in the budget. That's larger than our fire department. I would feel more comfortable voting on a budget if that was in there," Williams said.

Bedula explained that the school cafeteria fund and student activities fund comprise the majority of that money, with other smaller funds contributing as well. Money for those funds is collected from students when they pay for lunch and field trips and so forth, and not from taxpayers.

"We've used a consultant and we've been told this is an appropriate way of using those funds," Bedula explained. In previous meetings, the district has noted that there is a state statute that allows such funds not to be included in the budget, and that no other nearby districts include similar funds on their budgets.

But that wasn't good enough for some on the council.

"I do understand that state statutes may allow you to keep those funds off your budget, but that doesn't mean it allows for the most transparency. The most transparency would be to put those in the budget," Williams said.

Emert noted that in some years the town has had to add money to at least the cafeteria fund if it has run a deficit, implying that the funds are not as independent from taxpayer dollars as represented.

"One of the things that has concerned me is the fact that something like $100,000 of taxpayer money was used to zero out the fund in the cafeteria," he said.

The council will vote for a final 2013-2014 budget on April 9.

twoods@bcnnew.com; 203-972-4413; @Woods_NCNews