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Saturday, January 9, 2010

FROM WALLINGFORD - Honesty and forthrightness

This edition of FROM WALLINGFORD is written by my counterpart on the column, Stephen Knight

As posted online at on Friday January 8, 2010 for publication in Sunday’s paper on January 10, 2010

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"Necessity is the mother of invention." Yet another example of the accuracy of this trite phrase we all learned as children has come forth in the form of the proposed Wallingford school system budget unveiled last Tuesday night by Superintendent of Schools Sal Menzo. Another way it might be put is "innovation born of desperation."

Well, maybe desperation is too strong a word, but certainly there appears to be a realization on the part of the superintendent and his school administrators and central office staff that the state's financial problems are going to affect them - and affect them big-time. And also that this situation had to be addressed in the way that we chumps in the private sector have had to for some time - by finding new ways to do more with less - a lot less.

Now the public education bureaucracy in the United States is not exactly known for innovation. The sheer size of the bureaucracy and the machinations of the National Education Association have combined to stifle practically every innovative practice that has been attempted, from school vouchers to school choice to privatizing school administration.

So to see how creatively and substantively our school system is meeting the financial challenge is a really positive and exciting development. I am especially intrigued by two aspects of the superintendent's proposed budget: the realignment of the elementary schools and the budget process itself. Both are real departures from how business has been done here for many years.

Elementary School Realignment: in speaking with Board of Education Vice Chair Roxane McKay, I learned that having separate schools for kindergarten through second grade and third through fifth grade is not a new concept. Nevertheless, it represents new thinking here, and bringing this from just an idea to an actual plan has taken enormous effort from not only the superintendent, but also the principals of all eight schools and the central office staff. The result will not only be a saving of almost $2 million through regrettable but nonetheless necessary staff reductions, but also will markedly improve the schools themselves and the educational experience they deliver to the children. Other benefits include a better balance of class sizes between schools and more effective use of teachers in certain specialty areas.

Development of the school budget: For years and years, the budget for the school system has been built like this: A) Superintendent proposes budget with almost double-digit increase. B) Board of Education churns through massive document, nibbles around the edges and throws it to mayor still with most of huge increase intact. C) Mayor slashes proposed increase by 40 to 50 percent to an increase the town can digest. D) Town Council ruminates over it and essentially buys the mayor's number. E) Budget is adopted and school system "pre-buys" goods and services with "surplus" it has created over the previous year to offset impact of the reduction in original requested increase. Rinse. Repeat next year.

This year is radically different. The superintendent has done the heavy lifting already. The proposed increase is half what is usually requested, and his budget includes substantial reductions in staffing, not all a result of the realignment. I expect the BOE will largely agree with the proposal, and thus the mayor will receive a budget re-quest based in reality rather than one from which he must squeeze out the excess. This is a great step forward for all of town government. Sal Menzo has gone out on a limb with this and has done away with the "Hot Potato, Hot Potato" game that has characterized education budget creation for years and years.

It is hoped that the mayor and town council will show their support for his honesty and forthrightness by leaving this proposal largely intact. Thus would be born an opportunity to build the transparency and cooperation between the branches of town government that would be of lasting benefit to everyone involved.

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