Friday, April 4, 2008

Let Them Eat Cake

originally published in the Hartford Advocate March 27, 2008

Let Them Eat Cake

How much tax money does West Hartford's Board of Education spend on catered meals for itself? They won't tell us.

By Jennifer Abel

The current West Hartford school budget is close to $118 million, about $11,670 per student. According to the CIA World Factbook, this is more than the per capita income of 141 of Earth's 230 nations.

According to the board of education it's still not enough to teach the kids, so they're requesting an extra $7.5 million next year.

There's already grumbling in town about how taxes, once again, are rising higher than inflation. And since the school budget is over 60 percent of the town's total, much of that grumbling's directed toward school spending. It's mostly off-the-record, though, because people who speak against school spending are branded as selfish.

The budget's not presented in a line-item form that lists individual expenses. So when we first heard complaints about the board allegedly having breakfasts and lunches catered to meetings on the taxpayers' dime, we didn't know if this was a big deal or not because we couldn't go to the budget and read "Refreshments: X dollars."

Are we talking "coffee and donuts" or "five-course banquets"? A woman at the Avon Board of Ed. said she usually makes coffee for meetings; Simsbury said they'll provide a meal if they are scheduled back-to-back during the dinner hour. This sounds reasonable; is that what West Hartford's doing?

It'll be simple to ask the board of ed. about this, we thought. Their offices are right on the top floor of town hall. So we stopped by and were eventually referred to Chip Ward, the finance director, who responded to our question with a friendly smile and the suggestion that we make a Freedom of Information request. We handed over the FOI letter we'd printed out in case he said that.

When writing FOI requests, remember that if the person wanted to give you this info, you wouldn't be jumping through FOI hoops to begin with. So you must word your letter carefully, lest you leave a loophole through which the answer can escape.

Alas, we goofed. Our Feb. 6 letter asked, among other things, the cost and number of catered meals provided at board of education meetings. Ward's response, dated Feb. 14 and received Feb. 28, said: "Catered meals are not provided at board of education meetings. They have been provided at an ad hoc basis at special meetings." Oops. Ward mentioned one meal that cost $254.15, and was listed in the budget under "Communications."

Our next letter on Feb. 29 was much wordier and covered (we hope) all meetings having anything to do with the board in any official capacity. Ward's response, dated March 5, said "please be advised that as we are in the midst of budget preparation, it will take several weeks to compile the information requested."

Which means we didn't get it before the school budget hearing on March 27. So how much money are we talking about here? We have no idea.