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SEE YOU IN COURT! - February 2015

CABE Journal

February 2015

After the trauma he suffered during the last budget season, Mr. Chairperson vowed that this year would be different.  “The Nutmeg Board of Education is an independent agent, responsible for implementing the educational interests of the state,” he announced in an email pep talk to his Board colleagues.  “We must do the right thing and make our decisions in the best interest of the children of Nutmeg.”

Red Cent, another Board of Education member, forwarded this email to Seymour Dollars, long-serving Chairperson of the Nutmeg Board of Finance.  Seymour responded to Mr. Chairperson in an email to the entire Board of Education.  “In response to Mr. Chairperson’s diatribe, let me make one thing perfectly clear.  The Board of Education is powerless without the funding the Board of Finance provides.  You are anything but independent, and we expect you to listen carefully to us.”

Mr. Chairperson was upset by the threat implicit in Seymour Dollars’ response, so he called up each Board member and encouraged them to hang tough and support the Superintendent’s budget.  “United we stand,” he concluded each conversation.

At its next meeting, the Nutmeg Board of Education received the Superintendent’s budget, and Mr. Chairperson asked for a motion to approve the proposed budget immediately after Mr. Superintendent concluded his presentation.

“Wait a minute,” responded veteran Board member Bob Bombast.  “I thought that we are supposed to pick this budget apart.  Isn’t that why we were elected?”

“As we all discussed, Bob, I think that it is time for the Board to show solidarity and not kowtow to Seymour Dollars and his threats.  Is there a motion?”

The other Board members wanted to avoid the embarrassment of further public conflict between Mr. Chairperson and Bob, and they quickly proposed and passed the motion, with only one “no” vote -- Bob Bombast.  The Superintendent’s budget was thus submitted to the Nutmeg Board of Finance unscathed.

Seymour Dollars was incensed by the impertinence of the Board of Education, and he called an impromptu meeting of the Board of Finance at his home that evening.  “These people just don’t get it.  We are still in hard times, and we need to show the Board of Education who is boss here.”  With that, Seymour and the other members came up with a laundry list of cost-saving measures to recommend to the Board of Education, including layoff of all maintenance workers and allocation of their work to the Town maintenance department, consolidating the IT function under Town control, and adopting a policy of hiring teachers only on the first step on the salary schedule.  Seymour then sent this list of suggestions by email to the Board of Education, and he demanded an answer within seven days.

At the next meeting of the Board, Mr. Chairperson read aloud the list of suggestions from the Board of Finance, and then he asked, “Who wants to serve on a committee to review these suggestions and to explain to the Board of Finance why they make no sense?”  No one volunteered, but Mr. Chairperson quickly appointed three Board members to a committee to review the suggestions and report back to the Board of Education and the Board of Finance.  “Take your sweet time,” he concluded.

Do you see any problems with the Board’s response?

                                                                 *              *             *

The Nutmeg Board of Education is dealing with a statutory change that school boards confronted for the first time during last year’s budget season.  Conn. Gen. Stat. Section 10-222, as amended by Public Act 13-60, now adds to the annual budget process the following requirement:  “The board or authority that receives such estimate shall, not later than ten days after the date the board of education submits such estimate, make spending recommendations and suggestions to such board of education as to how such board of education may consolidate noneducational services and realize financial efficiencies. Such board of education may accept or reject the suggestions of the board of finance, board of selectmen or appropriating authority and shall provide the board of finance, board of selectmen or appropriating authority with a written explanation of the reason for any rejection.”  As stated, the fiscal authority must make its suggestions for consolidation and efficiencies within ten days of receiving the itemized budget estimate from the board of education.  The board of education must respond in writing if it does not accept those recommendations, but interestingly there is no similar timeline for the response.

Here, the Town made two suggestions that fall within the scope of this new statutory requirement – consolidation of maintenance work and the IT function with the town.  However, the first recommendation has serious labor relations implications.  Bargaining unit members currently perform the Board’s maintenance work, and any transfer of that work to others, union or non-union, must be negotiated with the exclusive bargaining representative, a process that can take months or years and may or may not be successful.

The consolidation of the IT function raises more practical than legal issues (unless of course the affected employees are unionized as well).  But those practical issues are significant.  Who will supervise those employees?  Who will make hiring and firing decisions?  Who will set priorities for these employees?  Perhaps most important, what will happen if the arrangement doesn’t work – how would the Board get the money to pay for IT back into its budget?  Clearly, great caution is warranted.

The third suggestion – hiring teachers only on the first step of the salary schedule – is big trouble for two reasons.  First, hiring teachers is clearly the Board’s business, and it falls outside the scope of the new statutory opportunity for the Board of Finance to make suggestions as to how the Board of Education “may consolidate noneducational services and realize financial efficiencies.”  Moreover, a policy of hiring only inexperienced teachers is questionable from an educational perspective, and it also may be illegal.  The courts have held that such policies may operate to discriminate against older candidates because inexperienced teachers are often young.

Finally, as usual there are FOIA issues with the actions of the Nutmeg Board of Education.  Mr. Chairperson called each of the Board members to urge them to support the Superintendent’s budget.  By itself, those conversations are not a problem.  However, if Mr. Chairperson shared information from other conversations among a quorum of the Board (as may be inferred from how he closed each conversation with “United we stand”), he may have conducted an illegal “seriatum” meeting.  Moreover, it appears that the “impromptu” meeting Seymour held was not properly posted.  Political issues come and go, but the FOIA is with us always.

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