At Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting there was a considerable amount of discussion around the Board’s budget adoption process. I requested that the Board consider changes to our budget process, and specifically wanted to engage in a discussion of zero based budgeting. At the outset I’d like to point out that our caucus got very little support for adding this agenda item. I am still confused as to why, after a summer with five referendums, we would not engage in a dialogue around the way we adopt our budget or interact with the public about the budget. In fact, my request to add this agenda item was prompted by a conversation I had with a citizen who, while completely in favor of our initial budget, was still frustrated by the process. Why were so many issues coming up during the referendums? Why couldn’t both the Board and the Council have worked these issues out before we asked the town to vote? I believe the answer to this lies in a fundamental change in the way we adopt our budget, and the way our finance committee functions.
We heard over and over again that the referendums failed because numbers were being misrepresented, most notably our per pupil spending number. Saying that the failure of the budget is based solely on “misinformation” is, to me, completely missing the point, and demonstrates how little some of those in power actually listen to the voters. During the referendum process I spoke to many no voters, and what I heard was not just about cost, it was about achievement. Five referendum votes reflected, at least for some voters that I spoke with, the frustration with being told year after year that more spending means more achievement, but not seeing those results. We heard repeatedly that the per pupil spending number used by no voters was wrong, despite the fact that the Hartford Courant published an article on education spending in Connecticut and gave a per pupil spending number for Windsor that was in line with the numbers published by no voters. It can be found here. The point here is that our budgets involve not only a very large sum of money generated by tax revenue, but also grants, grant funded positions, funding from the state and federal government, and mandates that we have no choice but to fund. Given all of this, it’s no wonder that there is discussion around these numbers, and at times different figures arrived at. But, Windsor also has an educated populace. We are a town of people who get involved. We are not a citizenry that will sit back and accept whatever is told to us by the town government. We will do our own research and fact checking, make suggestions for how the process can be improved, and voice our opinions and dissatisfaction when necessary. And I believe that the heart of the issue this summer was not just a price tag, but a price tag that voters felt did not reflect adequate results coming from our schools.
This is why zero based budgeting is so important. It’s an opportunity for the Board and the school district to rebuild, from the bottom up. It’s our chance to go through everything we offer as a school district, make sure that all of our funding requests are actually aligned with our district goals, prioritize our offerings, and come up with a budget that isn’t based on what things looked like in the prior year. It could also be structured in a way to increase the number of participants involved in creating the budget, including our teachers. We can show the public that we are capable of taking a realistic look at our financial requests, and that what we’re asking for isn’t just necessary, but that it’s also linked directly to achievement. And in the process, I would suspect that we may be able to eliminate some unsuccessful programs and find efficiencies. In conjunction with zero based budgeting, the finance committee should operate as a committee of the whole Board, hear each department’s budget requests as they have prioritized them, and then engage in developing the budget along with the administration, rather than simply being handed a completed Superintendent’s budget that we have had no hand in creating, and often have very little understanding of what went into its development. This past year the Finance committee, at the insistence of the Board president, was not even allowed to suggest changes to the Superintendent’s budget. If we are going to work together as a Board to develop an efficient budget that reflects our priorities then shutting Board members out of the process cannot continue.
I got very little support for my attempt to implement zero based budgeting on Tuesday. My fellow Republican board members voted along with me to implement a modified version of zero based for this year. I understand why the Democrats on the Board did not – it was a difficult position for them to be in just before the election. However, some expressed the fear that they would be portrayed as being against any change to the budget if they voted against my proposal. While many Democratic board members expressed an interest in continuing to look at ways to change our budget process (and I believe some were completely sincere) I also heard spirited defenses of our current system. The board president engaged in what I can only call a lengthy cross examination style questioning of our business director and director of pupil services apparently with the objective of pointing out that any criticism of the current budget process is just wrong. Along the way she brought up many of the same arguments we heard during the referendum. We can continue to engage in this behavior, dig our heels in and yell that one side is right and the other is wrong – but I don’t think that will get us very far. Why not adopt a different approach, which will give the district an opportunity to show that they are willing to justify all of their spending requests? Windsor is a town of involved voters, and that isn’t going to change. If our leadership won’t work with them to accommodate their need for information and desire to truly understand our budgets, then perhaps it’s time for new leadership.