Use surplus wisely

In a not-for-the-record moment, a first selectman once lamented, "They'd rather pay for a truckload of paperclips than send money back to us." He was speaking of his town's Board of Education.

It is an exaggeration, certainly, but one with a semblance of truth. State law requires school districts to return any surplus to the municipalities. However, there are incentives not to. Return too much money and you will convince a council you had too much to begin with. There are always needs to be met with a little extra year-end cash.

New London's public school administration and school board defied the stereotype, however, when it announced this past week a surplus of about $476,000. That sounds like a lot, but at 1.2 percent of the budget it is a number that could have come out far differently with a couple of costly special education placements or other unexpected costs.

In other words, you can't read too much into it, except that the public schools are honestly accounting for what they did not need.

Now the City Council needs to return the good-faith gesture with one of its own by working with the school board to create a "non-lapsing account," as allowed under state legislation passed in 2011. This is a good law. It allows the setting aside of surplus money - equal to up to 1 percent of the budget - for maintenance repairs. The money would be available to patch a leaky roof, repair a balky heating system and address other little problems before they become bigger, expensive ones.

All of this good will could move the city toward another worthy goal; having a unified Finance Department to handle the needs of both the education and general government budgets. The council had moved in that direction, but not with proper preparation. So a year ago Steven Adamowski, the state-appointed special master who is working with the district to improve academic performance, nixed the idea, concluding efforts would better be spent elsewhere. But at some point, the consolidation needs to happen.

As for the surplus and creating the special account, Mr. Adamowski plans to speak with the council. He should find a receptive audience.

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