The Board of Aldermen announced at a November meeting that the Board of Education will be switching to a zero-based budget in the upcoming year in hope of saving the city money.
Zero-based budgeting will force the Board of Education to justify all items for which it requests funds in its budget, according to Paul Hiller, the city’s finance director.
“One of the main things that zero-based budgeting changes is just because you needed X amount last year for a line item does not mean that you will need the same or more in the upcoming year,” said Hiller. “One of the great strengths of the city is the ability to control spending, and the mayor more than anyone has been at the forefront of that.”
The president of the Board of Aldermen, John Anglace, also gave Mayor Mark Lauretti credit for playing a big role in saving the city money.
“The mayor locked in the electricity rates for next year and will save the city $150,000,” said Anglace. “That saving didn’t come from them, it came from the mayor taking the bull by the horns.”
During the same Board of Aldermen meeting, Lauretti announced that the city would save around $94,000 on propane, which would be reduced from the Board of Education’s budget.
“Every year we find ways to reduce their costs, but every year they come and ask for millions more,” said Anglace. “They came last year and asked for $4.2 million in new money, which is a 6% increase. That’s not justifying your needs.”
Hiller explained that the new budget style isn’t designed to limit the funds allocated for the Board of Education but to merely assure that it is asking for the right amount.
“Zero-based budgeting isn’t us saying ‘no.’ It’s more like us saying, ‘Tell us why,’” said Hiller. “We’ve been able to deliver a very good product and not spend more of the taxpayers’ money, so it will be interesting to see.”
He added that the Board of Education has asked for more than it has needed or spent on line items in the past.
“The Board of Apportionment and Taxation and the Board of Aldermen are then faced by the Board of Education, parents, and teachers, who all say, ‘We need it, we need it, we need it,’ and we’re not saying you don’t, we are just saying that you need to defend it more so we can be sure you’re getting the right amount,” said Hiller.
Anglace said the aldermen put their foot down with this decision because they think the Board of Education could be more accurate with the money it is asking for.
“They’re going to have to work on justifying their needs versus just telling us stories about why they need more money. That doesn’t work,” said Anglace. “They have come in year after year and told us stories about how they used this amount last year and how they will need millions more in order to get the same results next year, and that’s just plain BS and we’re not buying it.”
Anglace added that zero-based budgeting is designed to help simplify the board’s budget.
“All we’re asking is that if you’re going to be educating our children and you need X amount of teachers, tell us how many teachers you need, how much it will cost, and we will add it up and give you the decision,” said Anglace. “It’s that simple. Facts are facts. If you need money, give us the details and we can go from there.”
Chairman of the Board of Education Mark Holden said the new style of budgeting could actually increase the length of the board’s budget, as it is being asked to justify every item.
“In our minds, as we have to justify everything we are doing and asking for, it could rival and potentially make our budget books grow,” said Holden.
Holden said although there are some on the board who are against the change, the Board of Education is willing to work with the Board of Aldermen’s requests in order to see if the results would be better for the city and to strengthen the line of communication between the boards.
He did have some concerns of his own.
“What could be interesting with the use of zero-based budgeting is that with the system we currently use there is a kind of highlighting of what is being asked for in terms of program improvement,” said Holden. “It is possible that under zero-based budgeting that program improvement will not be quite as obvious, but we will see how that will work.”
Outgoing Superintendent Freeman Burr said he is concerned that the Board of Education will have to learn the new style of budgeting so late in the year, but members will do their best.
Holden agreed, but acknowledged that the process will take time.
“We may not get 100% ‘there’ this year,” said Holden. “It’s going to be very much a learning process, but we’re going to give it a shot and we can tweak it as time passes. We will be able to ask them what changes we need to make in the upcoming year in order to provide them what they’re looking for.”
He added that in past years there has been a “how to understand our book” meeting and that there should be consideration of this happening in the future in order to assure that the Board of Aldermen, or anyone else who is interested, clearly understands the budget.