Wednesday, November 14, 2007

What is the Role of the BOE?

The broad duties of boards of education are set forth in Section 10-220 of the Connecticut General Statutes: "Each local or regional board of education shall maintain good public elementary and secondary schools, implement the educational interests of the state as defined in section 10-4a and provide such other educational activities as in its judgment will best serve the interests of the school district."

BOE Members’ obligations to the children are obvious but what, if any, are their obligations to the taxpayers who foot the bills? Are the Members simply "cheerleaders" for the Superintendent as they have often been called, adopting her requests without sufficient inquiry or are they obliged to examine them diligently, taking into account not only efficiencies in the school system but the Town's finances as a whole? These are tough questions that may be debated in the next two years with the new composition of the BOE.

It should be noted that there is no mandatory training for any members of our boards and commissions and there are no qualifications to run for office. Seminars and other means of self-education are available but peer pressure and the voting booth may in some cases be the only motivators for many candidates who are elected, thrown into public service and may have little or no background in the subject matter. The Party system being what it is in New Milford, voters are often stuck with people who genuinely wish to serve the public but are often assigned to unfamiliar and in some cases, unwanted territory. I am also concerned that the BOE is a unique spot for those with self-serving agendas. Too many have children in the system and some Members will disappear from the BOE one moment after graduation day.

Some may have no experience in finance, little or no experience in government and a limited understanding of high-ticket budgets. As Town Councilman Roger Szendy says, "People have a right to be stupid." Indeed. I wouldn’t have such a big problem with the concept if we had more public awareness and public participation in government, far more transparency on the BOE and a big voter turn-out to replace those who’ve exhibited a less than stellar performance.

The budget process is ponderous. The BOE hires a Superintendent who prepares and presents a Budget to the BOE. After the Members have -- hopefully -- done their due diligence, this "estimate of expenses" is given to the Mayor who can make a bottom line cut and then presents it to the Town Council. The Mayor and Council and Board of Finance may make recommendations about its content but, with very few exceptions, have no authority to change any particular line. They do, however, have the authority to cut the bottom line, charged as they are with the duty to consider the amount of the BOE Budget as part of the Town’s finances as a whole, taking into account such things as outstanding debt, bond rating and undesignated surplus. This process ultimately winds up in the hands of the voters at a Town Meeting and Budget Referendum.

The Statutes give the BOE a startling array of powers. One of these powers is the right provided in Section 10-222 to transfer money from one line to another at whim except, because of a Supreme Court decision, with regard to capital items. The idea of moving money from one line to another at will is counterintuitive since one would think that the voters chose to pass a Budget that contained monies to be used for specific purposes that shouldn’t thereafter be ignored. This doesn’t quite fly on the Town side!

Another of these powers that’s counterintuitive is that the BOE doesn’t have to comply with the Town’s bidding ordinance, a problem that may cost taxpayers millions of dollars in wasteful spending. It’s just so easy to spend someone else’s money, isn’t it?

BOE Members have a lot on their plates and are responsible for spending about 70 cents of every tax dollar you pay. I believe that their job is not to "rubber stamp" each and every recommendation that’s put in front of them by the Superintendent. Don’t blame her; she’s just doing her job.

The BOE Members’ job is to thoroughly understand the needs of the children and to efficiently and diligently support those needs while taking into account not only the financial ability and willingness of the taxpayers to pay for them but the Town’s financial health, itself a complicated matter.

This job description seems to have been lost over the years in favor of a willingness to throw unlimited amounts of money at the system with little regard to the return or the impact on taxpayers.

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