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The good news for the Nutmeg Board of Education is that the budget for 2024-2025 was finally approved.  The bad news is that the Town reduced the Board’s proposed budget by $1,000,000, and the Board members are struggling to decide what to do.

Last night, Ms. Chairperson convened a special meeting of the Board devoted to a single agenda item, “Revision and reallocation of Board Budget for 2024-2025.”  To start the meeting, Ms. Chairperson described the challenge the Board confronted – to reduce by $1,000,000 a budget that the Board already considered barebones.  “This is very difficult,” she acknowledged, “But we have a job to do.  I welcome any suggestions on what we can do to cut our budget for 2024-2025 to conform to the Town’s appropriation to us.”

Veteran Board member Bob Bombast, characteristically, was the first to speak.  “Respectfully, I reject the premise,” Bob started.  “The Board of Education is an agent of the State with the responsibility to implement the educational interests of the State.  We made our decision as to what we need.  I move that we stick with the budget we adopted and see what happens.  If we need a supplemental appropriation later in the year to make ends meet, we can ask for it.”

Board member Penny Pincher disagreed.  “Bob,” she said, “We can’t do that!  We are legally required to adopt a balanced budget, and we cannot spend more money than we have.  It’s bad enough that we do not get paid for our hard work as Board members, but I certainly don’t want to be personally liable for making unauthorized expenditures.”

Board member Mal Content chimed in.  “It would be irresponsible for us to adopt a budget that projects a deficit.  I don’t think that my homeowner’s insurance policy would cover me if I get sued.”

With that, Ms. Chairperson asked whether there was a second to Bob’s motion to maintain the Board budget as originally proposed, and there were crickets.  Ms. Chairperson then announced, “Bob, fortunately your motion fails for want of a second.  Now the Board must buckle down and find the $1,000,000 to cut.”

Bob was not finished.  “Shame on you all for wimping out here!  But if we have to make these cuts, I move that we have that discussion in executive session.”

“I like a confidential conversation as much as the next person,” responded Ms. Chairperson, “but what would be the basis for executive session?”

“Personnel matters,” said Bob.  “At this point, the only place we can cut is personnel, and it would be insensitive for us to talk in open session tonight about positions to cut so that the affected staff members would read about losing their jobs tomorrow in the Nutmeg Bugle.”

Mal Content perked up.  “Finally, Bob makes some sense.  I move that we convene in executive session to discuss ‘Personnel Matters.’”  Board member Red Cent promptly seconded Mal’s motion, and the Nutmeg Board of Education convened in executive session.  The Board members identified a number of positions that it would be cutting at its next meeting, and they directed Mr. Superintendent to provide courtesy notifications and career counseling to the affected employees.

Was the action of the Nutmeg Board of Education here appropriate?

*          *          *

The Nutmeg Board of Education violated the Freedom of Information Act, but at least it rejected Bob’s proposal to maintain a budget for 2024-2025 that would project a deficit.

The need for boards of education in Connecticut to adopt a balanced budget before the beginning of the year is implicit in Connecticut General Statutes, Section 10-222.  That statute governs the budget process, and it contemplates the following.  Each year, boards of education submit an itemized budget estimate to the board of finance or, in the absence of a board of finance, to the other authority making appropriations for the school district, and the appropriate town body makes the appropriation to the board of education for the coming year.  

The statute sets forth a process for requesting a supplemental appropriation in any given year, as Bob Bombast noted.  However, the statute does not obligate the municipality to provide any additional funds, and it expressly states that “no additional funds shall be expended unless such supplemental appropriation shall be granted and no supplemental expenditures shall be made in excess of those granted through the appropriating authority.”

The obligation for boards of education to adopt a balanced budget each year is evident in the provisions in Section 10-222 regarding transfers.  The statute has long provided that the appropriation made to a board of education for the year may be expended “by and in the discretion of the board of education,” and that the board of education may make transfers from one line item to another to do so.  However, in 1998, the General Assembly amended the statute to regulate the process of making line-item transfers.  In so doing, it added the following helpful definition to the statute: “‘itemized estimate’ means an estimate in which broad budgetary categories including, but not limited to, salaries, fringe benefits, utilities, supplies and grounds maintenance are divided into one or more line items.”  Accordingly, local boards of education may establish broad categories of expenditures as “line items” as they comply with the following the statutory requirements that apply to line-item transfers. 

Additional language in the statute regarding line-item transfers makes clear that boards of education must maintain balanced budgets.  The statute now also imposes new requirements for making transfers in certain circumstances:

Boards may, by adopting policies and procedures, authorize designated personnel to make limited transfers under emergency circumstances if the urgent need for the transfer prevents the board from meeting in a timely fashion to consider such transfer.”

When a board of education delegates the authority to make budget transfers, the transfer must be announced at the next regularly scheduled meeting of the board of education, and the transfer must also be explained in writing to municipal officials.  Clearly, if boards could maintain a deficit budget, there would be no “emergency circumstances” involving an “urgent need” to make a line-item transfer.  The Nutmeg Board of Education was therefore correct in rejecting Bob’s proposal.

The Board should have also rejected Bob’s suggestion to discuss budget cuts in executive session, for three reasons.  First, executive session is permitted only for reasons specified in the statute, and there is no executive session privilege for budget discussions.  Second, the employment of individual employees may be discussed only after giving the affected employees an opportunity to require that the discussion be held in open, and that did not happen here.  Third, the Freedom of Information Commission has repeatedly held that “Personnel Matters” as an agenda item does not fairly apprise the public of the business to be conducted, as required by law, and greater specificity is required when “personnel matters” are cited as the reason for executive session. 

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Photo of Thomas B. Mooney Thomas B. Mooney

Tom is chair emeritus of the School Law Practice Group and is active in all areas of school law, including labor negotiations for certified and non-certified staff, teacher tenure proceedings, grievance arbitration, freedom of information hearings, student disciplinary matters, special education disputes and…

Tom is chair emeritus of the School Law Practice Group and is active in all areas of school law, including labor negotiations for certified and non-certified staff, teacher tenure proceedings, grievance arbitration, freedom of information hearings, student disciplinary matters, special education disputes and all other legal proceedings involving boards of education. Tom is the author of A Practical Guide to Connecticut School Law (9th Edition, 2018), a comprehensive treatise on Connecticut school law, and two columns, “See You in Court!,” which appears in the CABE Journal, and “Legal Mailbag,” which appears in the CAS Bulletin.