Budget Survey Will Put Morgan Math Skills to Use
In an effort to better gauge what town services citizens value most during the budget process the town is embarking on a partnership with The Morgan School that would allow for residents to be surveyed on their thoughts regarding which town services should be prioritized in the next budget.
At the Dec. 2 Town Council meeting, Town Manager Karl Kilduff and the council briefly discussed the idea of partnering with a math class taught by Morgan teacher John Madura to conduct a survey to assess how people feel about certain services provided by the town.
The surveys would be made available to residents at clintonct.org on Friday, Dec. 11 and will run until Friday, Jan. 8, 2021. Kilduff said that in other towns he has worked, surveys had been used as part of the budget process and he personally found them useful.
Bringing this project between the town and school to life is a journey that is more than two years in the making, according to Madura. From an initial statistics course that saw fewer than 30 students in the first year to a current offering of data science and statistics classes that see nearly double that number, Madura credited The Morgan School administration with helping grow the interest in the field.
“[Principal] Keri Hagness is an advocate for all kinds of deep learning experiences, especially one experiential in nature like this one. Two summers ago, she was part of the initial effort with [then-] first selectwoman [Christine] Goupil to get the project moving. At the same time, Marco Famiglietti led the committee to develop the data science course for students at Morgan. They both recognized that data science, in its purest form, is an applied science and we should seek every opportunity to engage in authentic learning experiences,” Madura said.
“I think it is important for citizens in the town to know that we have spent a significant time in the high school developing ways to provide our students with learning opportunities in statistics and data science,” Madura said, citing the rapidly growing real-world use that field is seeing.
Kilduff explained how the Town Council could use the surveys in an email to the Harbor News.
“The point of the survey is a tool for further community engagement around the budget. It is an opportunity to get feedback before public hearings and a referendum vote. It is not meant to be a replacement for those steps, it is a chance to get early insights,” Kilduff wrote. “The council would be able to see public perception of services and the priority given to them. That would help inform budget decisions.
“The council would also see community preferences and priorities for how to change the budget. The referendum is a simple yes/no vote. This is an opportunity to inform the council on public attitudes toward approaches to change the budget,” Kilduff wrote.
Part of a Process
In Clinton, the budget process is much longer than, perhaps, the average person realizes. Each department is already at work refining its budget drafts that will be presented to the Town Council during budget workshops typically held in mid-winter.
Though the workshops are public, most citizens don’t usually get their first full peek at the proposed budget until the council votes to officially propose the full budget in early March. A public hearing is then held in April, after which the council can vote to make any last changes to the budget before sending it to at least one referendum held in May.
Due to the COIVD-19 pandemic last year there was no referendum. Instead, the state granted each municipality emergency powers to have the legislative body in town pass budgets without referendum due to health concerns. It is expected that the budget process in 2021 will return to normal, pending any forced changes due to the pandemic.
While the council doesn’t usually get feedback from the public on the proposed budget until the public hearing, Kilduff said that the surveys would be used by the council to get a sense of what the public wants in a budget when the council is working on building the proposed budget.
Sample questions that could be added on a survey include questions asking responders to rank the importance of different services offered by the town and how they’d rate those services.
“Simply, the questions are meant to understand spending preferences, importance, and priority of town services; community input and priorities on preferences for changing the budget; and impacts of a change in tax rate,” Kilduff said.
While the council will get value out of the surveys, the project will also provide useful experience for the students helping build the survey. Madura said the students will learn about writing surveys, using graphics to inform people as part as data visualization, deriving statistical analysis out of the gathered data, and writing the results.
“Engaging with our community on such an important subject as the budget requires students to be mindful of the impact they potentially have on the community. This is a real project with real consequences. We are trying to do something to help decision-makers craft the best budget possible for the community. It is also the very thing that makes this project so meaningful. It is a really unique opportunity,” Madura said.
“There are a couple things I would really like people to know. First and foremost, this work is about the students and their connection to the community. They are going to do the work and they bring a set of real skills that would probably surprise a lot of people,” Madura said.
The town has previously conducted surveys to get information about a project under consideration. For example, in 2019 the town sought to survey the senior citizen population in town to learn what services that demographic was interested in and the economic development commission routinely seeks to gather data on the needs of businesses.
The budget survey project may only run during a short period in the winter, but Madura hopes that the students can be used more extensively by other boards and commissions in town whenever there is a need to survey Clinton residents.
“I should emphasize that we are attempting to build a long-term partnership with our town government. We call ourselves the Husky Research Group and the vision is for it to be something like the GAO for the United States Congress. We would love to be an organization that can be tasked out by the town manager, boards, and committees to carry out data collection, analysis, and evaluation for various policies and projects,” Madura said.
Stay tuned to the town website clintonct.org for more information on the forthcoming survey.