New legislation encouraging more cooperation between boards of education and town departments has sparked discussions on how independent the New Canaan Board of Education should be and how much that independence is costing taxpayers.
The number, according to First Selectman Robert Mallozzi, is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. That's how much he believes New Canaan taxpayers could save every year if the board and town departments shared some of their noneducational services, such as information technology and building maintenance.
"This is not about the town going anywhere near education," Mallozzi said. "When you look at IT, do you really need an IT help desk in the town and an IT help desk for the schools? Do you really need one guy looking at the overall buildings of the town and another person on the school side doing the same?"
In light of the new legislation, Public Act 13-60, the first selectman and an ad hoc committee comprising of Town Council and Board of Finance members asked the Board of Education in February to consider a number of areas where it thought cost efficiencies would result if merged.
Besides IT and building maintenance, other services the committee suggested merging were finance, school security, human resources and health insurance coverage.
Board of Ed's response
In a letter to the committee June 9, the Board of Education rejected all of the suggestions.
In addressing some of them, Chairman Hazel Hobbs wrote 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."
Councilman Roger Williams, one of the members of the ad hoc committee, said the letter "is a slap in the face to the taxpayers" and highlights the "culture of entitlement in the district."
"If you look at it, this response from the Board of Education is basically an affront to the taxpayers of New Canaan, as well as the elected officials of the town of New Canaan," he said.
Williams said the board's response worries him that the financial operations of the town and school district wouldn't see significant improvement anytime soon.
"We need new systems, we need to train our people better. (Finance) is an area that needs urgent attention," he said. "The idea that they don't want to work toward creating efficiencies is extremely problematic."
Hobbs said the letter was not the end of the conversation and that the board intends to conduct further discussions with town officials.
"I think that this act has good potential and could have some good results as long as we've had enough opportunities to discuss it and work out the details," Hobbs said. "We have in the past worked on some things together that have been successful and we've also worked on some things that were not quite successful and it's a matter of looking into the details and making sure all the details work."
One example, Hobbs said, was when the town took over vehicle repairs for the district. She said the town, however, could only provide service on weekdays, "which meant the vehicles were not in operation when we needed them."
Hobbs wrote in the letter that the board has separate statutory responsibilities and different priorities when it comes to building maintenance.
For instance, one of the requirements at the schools is that the water temperature in the restrooms has to stay at a high enough temperature to kill germs.
"So if the water in any way is shut off, we have to close the schools and send the students home," Hobbs said. "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."
Although the district doesn't own the buildings, Hobbs said, it is its responsibility to manage them.
"We need to make sure that everything that has to do with maintenance has to be very carefully planned," she said. "You wouldn't think that hot water would close the school or cold water would close the school, but these are the kinds of responsibilities that we have."
When it comes to purchasing and procurement, which the town and the board have worked together in some situations, Mallozzi said he would like the effort to increase.
"We would have more leverage buying supplies and consultant-type services as the $138 million operation than we would as a $40 million or a $70 million operation," he said.
The Board of Education's operating budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year is $70.9 million, excluding health benefits. The town's operating budget is $40.8 million.
Hobbs noted that the board is wary that such mergers would result in job cuts in the district or sharing its employees' time.
"The concern that I think the board has more is that our employees are working flat out, as hard as they can and putting in many hours extra depending on the employees and their jobs. So we don't understand how we could share them with somebody else," Hobbs said. "There's no extra time that they're sitting around, not working.
"I'm not aware that they would have extra time or would be available to handle more responsibilities," she continued. "In the last few years, we've made every effort to already find efficiencies for people and their jobs. We've been working on efficiencies to make sure every person is working at maximum capacity at their jobs."
Mallozzi said the conversation is not about eliminating jobs, but finding efficiencies.
"Right now, all we want to do is to have that discussion," he said.
The first selectman also said he expected "a little more enthusiasm" from the board.
"I think we're all very disappointed with the tone in the note from the Board of Education," he said.
The board conducted a workshop with its attorney, Thomas Mooney, May 20 to discuss the pros and cons of consolidating services with the town. Following the meeting, Mooney wrote a memo to board members reminding them 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.
Mooney also 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.
"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."
Finding common ground
Though he understands the board's concern that information technology involves instruction and may not be fully a noneducational service, Mallozzi said there are synergies to be found between the town's and the district's IT desks.
"Our guys can understand routers, Internet and connectivity as well as any other group," he said. "So if there's a way to get those two together and merge them, it just makes sense to me. We have too much duplication in the town.
"We have to take the conversation away from education and make it a business conversation and take the emotions out of it," Mallozzi added. "This is truly a business deal."
Town Council Chairman Bill Walbert said he understands the Board of Education's point of view, but he hopes there's still room for discussion.
"Cost savings can be bigger in theory than they are in reality. Different priorities can create a potential problem," he said. "More in-depth discussions need to happen to get to where we can agree on something."
Williams said he's going to suggest the town bodies to keep the board's budget flat if it doesn't agree to discuss potential synergies with the town.
In his memo, Mooney asked the board to keep in mind "its statutory responsibility to maintain the New Canaan Public Schools and to provide a quality education to its students." By contrast, he said, "the primary responsibility of the town and its Board of Finance in such matters is to assure cost-effective operations for the taxpayers."
"Ultimately, the Board of Education is responsible for reconciling suggestions for cost savings with any related impact on the quality of the educational program," Mooney wrote.
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