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It would be a mistake for the First Selectman to engage in a trivial back and forth over minutia with the 4 individuals who defended the District 7 report at yesterday’s press conference. Likewise, he should not acquiesce to the request that his “historical analysis be re-released” to reflect their analysis. The First Selectman’s analysis should stand on its own merits.

The factual error regarding the RTM vote totals for last October’s Sense of the Meeting Resolution (SOMR) is not germane to the historical analysis. Neither is the technical question as to who actually authored and introduced the SOMR. It is a fact that Lucia Jansen was the author of the historical analysis that became the District 7 report that was the very foundation of the SOMR. Clearly this is what the author of the First Selectman’s analysis intended to convey to the reader. That the words used were technically incorrect is irrelevant to the analysis. And the quibbling over the use and meaning of the word “austere” is downright silly.

To “quibble,” according to the dictionary, is “to raise trivial distinctions and objections, esp. so as to evade an issue.” And this seems the best way to describe yesterday’s defense of the District 7 report. We need to move beyond this and look at a larger picture. The First Selectman’s report has moved the budget conversation forward by supplying the context that the District 7 report lacks. It has provided data that supports many of the contextual arguments made by critics of the District 7 report at the time the SOMR was under discussion, particularly with regard to the impact of legislative mandates.

It has also provided a detailed analysis of the town’s growth in headcount over the past 40 years. This is really the meat of the new report. And interestingly enough, Jansen finds no fault with these numbers:  “Net-net, given the facts and complete true analysis, there is no material headcount difference between District 7’s report and the First Selectman’s. Period.”

While intended as a defense of her research, this statement regarding headcount at the same time can be construed as supporting an argument critical of her report. There is an implicit recognition here that headcount increase on the town side has not been excessive and that, as claimed in the First Selectman’s report, can be attributed in significant part to legislative mandates.

Jansen’s defense of her research turns the spotlight instead on headcount increase and budget growth on the Board of Education side. While the First Selectman’s analysis does not deal with the BOE side of the equation, the Schools have done their own historical analysis at the First Selectman’s request. The Superintendent of Schools provided some of this data as part of his 2012 budget presentation to the BET Budget Committee last week. The BOE analysis found that, adjusting for inflation, the BOE operating budget increased by $8,938 per pupil over the 40 year period between 1970 and 2010. Almost all (93.9%) of the increase is attributable to factors in 4 broad categories: new programs, mostly mandated (37.8%); increases in existing programs due to mandates or costs above inflation (22%); reductions in class size (4.8%); and contractual salary increases (29.4%). Various mandates such as special education, which didn’t exist in 1970, and contractual salary increases account for the bulk of the increase.

A definitive and comprehensive historical analysis of the town and BOE budgets over the past 40 years that includes all relevant comparative and contextual information needed to arrive at meaningful conclusions would require the services of a paid consultant. It is unlikely such a study will ever be done. But the First Selectman’s report and the BOE analysis have built upon the District 7 report in a meaningful way.

Rather than quibble over the word “austere” or the fact that as of the current 2011 fiscal year, The Nathaniel Witherell budget is in an enterprise fund and no longer part of the general fund, we should be engaging in a conversation that recognizes the fact that there are other variables beside population size and student enrollment that have had an impact on the town and school budgets over the past 40 years.

As for the SOMR, I have no doubt that the BET will present the RTM with a budget that demonstrates fiscal restraint, as it always does. But judging from comments at the BET Budget Committee hearing last week, this may not be enough for some members of District 7. The severe spending cuts they want do indeed seem to meet the definition of “austere.”