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SEE YOU IN COURT! - March 2012

CABE Journal

March 2012

Authors: Thomas B. Mooney

Mr. Superintendent was pleased to hear all the big talk about education reform. If the Governor is willing to spend State money to improve education, he thought, shouldn’t we expect the Town fathers in Nutmeg to do the same? Unbeknownst to Mr. Superintendent, however, education reform has indeed been on the mind of Seymour Dollars, Chair of the Nutmeg Board of Finance. Seymour and his cronies have been hatching a plot to tell the Board of Education how to save money and provide cost-effective education.

The Board of Finance plan has several elements. First, it will require that the Board of Education bid all contracts above $5,000 to assure the best price for all goods and services. Second, given the availability of training videos on the Internet, no additional funds will be appropriated for professional development activities. Third, and most significant in terms of costs, the health insurance plan will be managed by the Town, and that insurance will now be provided through a self-insurance program.

The members of the Nutmeg Board of Education were chagrined to first learn about Seymour’s plan when they received calls asking for comment on the plan from Nancy Newshound, ace reporter from the Nutmeg Bugle. Veteran Board member Bob Bombast didn’t hold back when Nancy explained the plan. “Seymour should stick to Town matters!” he barked. “We will not permit the Town to usurp the authority of the Board of Education.” 

The Board of Education started its next meeting by convening into executive session to discuss Seymour’s plan. Board members conceded that the bidding requirement was likely required by statute anyway, and getting rid of professional development was probably a step in the right direction. But they all expressed grave concern over the Town’s assuming responsibility for employee health insurance.

The Board members were not alone. When it reconvened in open session, the Board moved right to Public Comment, and Mal Content, President of the Nutmeg Union of Teachers, was first to speak. “The Town Administration is incompetent. NUTS will never agree to let those bozos take over our health insurance.”

Some Board members nodded in agreement, secretly hoping that Seymour was not watching the meeting on cable access. Bob Bombast, however, could not care less, and he is always only too happy to say what the other Board members think to themselves. “I wouldn’t trust those people to gas up my car,” Bob scowled. “I move that the Board accept the first two elements of the Town’s plan for education reform, but that we unequivocally reject the Town’s plan to take over health insurance.

As it turns out, Seymour was indeed watching the meeting on cable access, and he promptly sent a text to Bob, with copies to the other Board members and Mr. Superintendent as well. With his flare for the dramatic, Bob was only too happy to read it aloud at the meeting: “Dear Board members. Obviously, you have forgotten who holds the purse strings. We have already taken the money from your budget. Have a nice day. ☺”

Can the Board of Finance do that? 

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Boards of education act as the agent for the state to assure that all resident children receive a suitable program of instruction, and, as such, they are independent of town control as they fulfill that responsibility. To provide the necessary funds, the town is required, first, to consider the budget request of the board of education and then, in light of other demands on the town’s financial ability, to appropriate the funds reasonably necessary to that end. Connecticut General Statutes, Section 10-222, makes the independent authority of boards of education clear. It provides that the “money appropriated by any municipality for the maintenance of public schools shall be expended by and in the discretion of the board of education.”

Given this independent authority of the board of education, the town, acting through the board of finance, the town council, the mayor, etc., does not have the right to tell the school board how to operate. As to the first element, there are a few bidding requirements by statute, such as for school construction and school lunch programs. However, absent a charter provision imposing specific requirements, the board of education has the right to decide whether and when to put contracts out to bid.

The Board has the responsibility to provide teachers with professional development activities. However, here, there are also statutory concerns. Currently, boards of education are required to provide eighteen hours of professional development to teachers each year. Moreover, under the proposed reform legislation, the State Department of Education will be auditing school districts to assure that effective in-service instruction is provided. It is unlikely that training videos will suffice.

The main event, of course, is health insurance, which is a basic part of the right and responsibility of boards of education to employ teachers and others to fulfill their educational mission. The town cannot unilaterally take on the responsibility to provide health insurance to school board employees. Collaboration on health insurance between school and municipal officials is possible and may be indeed be welcome. However, since the board of education may expend its appropriation “in its discretion,” it and the town must agree on any role for the town in providing and/or funding health insurance.

As long as the obligations of both town and board of education are clearly spelled out, under some circumstances, self-insured plans can offer savings. Moreover, in general unions do not have the right to bargain over such funding issues. However, the board of education may have to bargain over related mandatory subjects, such as state mandates and benefits administration.

Finally, as so often happens, there are FOIA issues in Nutmeg. First, it appears that the Board convened an illegal executive session. Issues relating to the budget are not privileged to executive session. Unless the Board members were discussing a confidential document, such as legal advice concerning the Town’s plan, it should not have convened in executive session to discuss these matters. Second, texting about the operation of the public schools, as Seymour did, creates public records. Seymour’s text was more obnoxious than embarrassing, but such is not always the case. Board members are well advised to be cautious before texting their colleagues or others about board business.

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