As the Nutmeg Board of Education prepares for new budget season, Board member Mal Content is worried about the budget discussions becoming antagonistic and personal. The last budget season had been brutal, but people were generally civil and respectful in their comments on the budget. However, the last year has been hard on civility in public discourse at the local, state and federal levels of government, and Mal was worried that during budget deliberations the Board will experience the rude behavior seen too often these days on the television news.

Mal would not have to wait long. Seymour Dollars, the venerable Chairperson of the Nutmeg Board of Finance, invited the Board of Education to a preliminary meeting to provide “guidance” to the Board during the budget process. Ms. Chairperson of the Board of Education saw little choice but to play ball and ask her colleagues on Board of Education to suck it up and attend the meeting.

When Seymour called the meeting to order a few days later, he grandly announced, “This is my meeting,” he intoned, “and the members of the Board of Education are here as my guests.” Though it was early in the meeting, veteran Board of Education member Bob Bombast lost his composure. “It is our meeting too, you old windbag,” Bob blurted out. Seymour glared and ruled Bob out of order, cautioning Bob that he would be ejected from the meeting if he kept it up.

“We have invited the Board of Education here to remind our spendthrift colleagues that money is still tight. We suggest that you follow the zero-based budget approach and ask for more money only if there is a compelling need for it. Got it?” The Board members didn’t want to dignify Seymour’s condescending suggestion with a response. However, as they walked out quietly, Seymour called after them, “Remember, we are waiting for your suggestions for efficiencies and collaboration!”

In the weeks that followed, the Board of Education struggled to come up with a low-increase budget, and at the public hearing on the Board budget, it was the public’s turn to get testy. Bruno, President of the Nutmeg Union of Teachers, was first up, and he was anything but deferential. “This budget is a sham, and you are all cowards,” he shouted. To the applause of his union coterie, he sat down. But the criticism continued unabated. The PTO President was in high dudgeon as well, accusing the Board members of being “traitors” to the cause of high quality education. With that, a group of parents stood up and started waiving signs and chanting, “Traitors, Traitors.”

Ms. Chairperson had never seen anything like it, and she banged and banged on her gavel to restore order. Eventually, the group quieted down, but whenever Ms. Chairperson tried to move on with the Board meeting, the claque from the PTO stood back up and started chanting again. Eventually, Ms. Chairperson gave up trying, and over the din she asked whether there was a motion to adjourn. Bob Bombast made the motion, which was quickly seconded and passed unanimously.

Did Ms. Chairperson have any alternative here?

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Indeed she did. The Freedom of Information Act addresses the situation when persons attending a public meeting cause a disruption. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 1-232 permits a public agency to remove persons causing the disruption, and, if that does not work, to clear the room and proceed with the meeting, provided that duly accredited members of the press must be readmitted unless they were participating in the disturbance. Given this statutory provision, the Nutmeg Board did not have to adjourn the meeting.

More generally, boards of education can enforce standards of civility in their meetings. In this regard, we must distinguish between what people say, which is protected by the First Amendment, and how they say it, which sometimes is not. Here, the President of NUTS called the members of the Nutmeg Board of Education “cowards,” and the PTO President called them “traitors.” Under Robert’s Rules of Order, both comments were ad hominem attacks, i.e., name-calling, and persons engaging in such conduct can be and should be ruled out of order.

His condescension notwithstanding, Seymour Dollars raised an important point. Recent legislation requires that boards of education confer with the municipality on budgetary matters in a number of new ways. Since 2013, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-222 has provided that, after the board of education submits its itemized budget estimate, the town body that receives the estimate “shall . . . 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.” The board of education may accept or reject such recommendations, but it must respond in writing if it rejects the recommendations.

In 2017, the General Assembly imposed three new requirements related to board of education expenditures as follows:

  • Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-241c requires that boards of education consult with the legislative body “when possible” regarding the joint purchase of property insurance, casualty insurance and workers’ compensation insurance.
  • Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-241d requires local boards of education, after receiving responses to requests for bids for a good or service, to (i) consult with the legislative body of the municipality if the municipality provides or uses such good or service at a lower cost than the lowest qualified bid submission provided to the local board of education and (ii) consider a cooperative agreement with the municipality for such good or service if the equivalent level of such good or service is provided by the municipality or through a municipal contract with a lower cost than the bid submission.
  • Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-241e requires that boards of education consult with the legislative body of the municipality prior to purchasing payroll software (payroll processing or accounts payable) to determine whether the payroll software systems may be purchased or shared on a regional basis.

Consultation does not require agreement, and boards of education retain discretion in how they expend the appropriation made to them by the municipality to operate the schools. However, boards of education must be aware of these new statutory provisions during the budget process and thereafter to avoid a town complaint later that the board of education violated these requirements in expending its funds.