The Nutmeg Board of Education finally has a budget for the 2018-2019 school year.  Difficult as the process was, however, the hard work for the Board of Education was now beginning.  Somehow, somewhere, the Nutmeg Board of Education must find savings in the amount of $2,000,000 in the budget reconciliation process.

Ms. Superintendent knows that the only way to find the necessary reductions will be to cut both programs and staff, but even she was daunted by the scope of the task.  By contrast, veteran Board member Bob Bombast is a font of ideas, good and bad, and he is not shy about sharing them.

“Let’s start with some furloughs for teachers,” Bob began grandly at the last meeting of the Board.  “We have six days in the calendar for professional development for whatever that is worth.  Who wouldn’t like some time off instead?”

Board members Penny Pincher and Red Cent nodded in agreement, but Mal Content was not convinced.  “Don’t we have to negotiate with the Nutmeg Union of Teachers about this?  I don’t know why they would just agree to take a pay cut.”

Bob was unfazed.  “NUTS will agree if it knows what is good for its members.  Besides, I am just warming up.  We will certainly have to cut staff and programs too.  World language in elementary school, for example, is a luxury we can longer afford.”

“Hold on, Bob,” Mal Content interrupted.  “We should have this discussion in executive session.  We don’t want teachers reading in the paper that the Board is considering the elimination of their positions.”

“For once, Mal, you make a good point,” Bob responded, and on Bob’s motion, the Board promptly convened in executive session to discuss “personnel matters.”  Once the Board was in executive session, Bob continued.  “We need to make some serious reductions, and world language is a great place to start.  With Google translation, we certainly don’t have to clutter our minds learning foreign languages.”

Penny Pincher chimed in.  “I agree with Bob, but I am concerned that getting rid of world language at the elementary school will not be nearly enough to close the $2,000,000 shortfall.  What else can we do?”

“Let’s get rid of art in the elementary school as well,” Bob responded.  “Elementary teachers can just take care of art instruction as well.”

“With all due respect, Bob, I am not sure that even eliminating world language and art instruction at the elementary level will be enough,” Ms. Superintendent said.

“Well, it’s a good start,” Bob responded.  “We will show our good faith to the Town fathers, and if despite our efforts we run out of money, we can just ask for a supplemental appropriation.  Who’s in?”

Other than Mal, who seems to oppose everything, the Board members agreed to go ahead with Bob’s plan.  The Nutmeg Board of Education reconvened into public session and announced that teachers would be furloughed for six days next year and that elementary art and world language will not be taught as separate subjects anymore, starting in September.

Problem solved?

*          *          *

Sadly no.  Dealing with budget cuts is always a challenge, but the actions that the Board took as Bob recommended are problematic in many ways.

First, as to the furloughs, there is good news and bad news and more bad news.  The good news is that the Connecticut State Teachers’ Retirement Board has ruled that taking a furlough day (thus foregoing a day’s pay) does not reduce “annual salary” for the purposes of calculating pension benefits (as long as the contribution is made for the salary that would otherwise have been earned).  However, a furlough day is a change in working conditions, and before the Board can go through with this plan, it must negotiate with NUTS, which may or may not go along.  As to the bad news, even when a furlough day (or more) is negotiated, boards of education must keep in mind that the savings this year will have to be made up in the budget next year just to get back to zero before considering any increases for that year.

The other bad news about the Board’s plan is that the Board is required by law to provide at least eighteen hours of professional development opportunities for its teachers.  Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-148a.  The non-instructional days are typically when such professional development opportunities are provided.  However, with the proposed scheduling of furlough days on these days, it is not clear how or when the Nutmeg Board of Education will fulfill its responsibilities to provide professional development.

The elimination of world language and art instruction at the elementary level also poses problems.  The curricular impact of such action is a great concern, of course, but there are practical labor relations implications that the Nutmeg Board should also keep in mind.  Presumably, elementary teachers receive preparation time when special teachers, including world language and art teachers, are teaching their students.  If so, the Board will have somehow to assure that these teachers will still receive preparation time in accordance with the contract.  If preparation time is simply set by practice, the Board will have to negotiate over a change in that practice before going ahead with its decision.  Moreover, if elementary teachers will now be responsible for teaching art, NUTS may demand impact bargaining over the change.

With due regard for the challenge of making necessary cuts to bring the budget into balance after town reductions, Bob’s suggestion that the Board can simply ask for a supplemental appropriation later presents two problems.  First, the statutes provide for board accountability in making line item transfers during the year, and starting the year with a projected deficit conflicts with that statutory expectation.  Moreover, notably absent from the statutory provision for requesting a supplementary appropriation is any guarantee that the additional funds will be provided.  Given the uncertainty of any supplemental appropriation, boards of education must begin the year with a budget that conforms to the funds available.

Finally, the Board’s decision to discuss budget cuts in executive session violated the law.  While budget cuts may affect personnel, the executive session privilege applies only to the discussion of specific individual employees, and then only if after notice they do not require that the discussion as to them be held in open session.  Moreover, the Freedom of Information Commission has held repeatedly that citing “personnel matters” as a reason to enter executive session violates the FOIA because it fails adequately to apprise the public of the business to be transacted.