With a vote on it just weeks away, the Board of Estimate and Taxation’s (BET’s) Budget Committee is examining every line of the proposed 2013-14 municipal budget with particular attention to the Board of Education.
The budget committee this week looked at many individual town departments, including emergency services and The Nathaniel Witherell, but devoted an entire day to examining the proposed $142-million Board of Education budget. On Feb. 7, the committee held the all-day session, considered one of the most important of the budget consideration, with representatives from the school district, including Superintendent of Schools William McKersie and Board of Education Chairman Leslie Moriarty, examining costs for district initiatives and outlining the future they see for education in Greenwich.
Overall, the proposed municipal budget for 2013-14 is at approximately $382 million for the general fund, which would result in a 2.96% increase in the town’s mill rate. There is an additional expense of close to $45 million for future expenses where borrowing has been done, pushing the budget to more than $426 million, but only the $382 million would drive the mill rate increase that is being considered right now by the Budget Committee.
The $142-million school budget has already come under scrutiny, as it had to be cut to fit into the budget guidelines passed by the BET on a contentious 7-6 vote that called for a spending cap and a lower-than-typical mill rate increase. Both the operating and capital budgets for the schools have been cut already by the Board of Education, leaving members of the board urging the BET to not request any further cuts and members of the public decrying cuts to school maintenance and program coordinators in music and physical education.
Both of those topics came up during the Feb. 7 all-day meeting, with Dr. McKersie saying the decision to eliminate the jobs of the coordinators was done not because of the BET but rather because of his own wish to change structure inside the district. He said he wanted to change district headquarters in the Havemeyer Building into a “modern organization that is team-based, collaborative and interdisciplinary.”
“There were great, great people in coordinator roles,” Dr. McKersie said. “This is not a comment on any individual. But they’ve been too much in silos, too much in isolated areas. I’m going to bring it right to the parent level, since they’re, next to the student, maybe the most important constituents we have. When a parent says to me that teachers are being pulled here and pulled there and not focused here, that’s not the fault of anyone, but it’s a system that, while great, has been pulling people in too many different directions. That has hit most heavily on teachers and then the students.”
Dr. McKersie said he wanted to stress to the BET that there would be a “whole new accountability system in place” to make sure there is the best possible and most efficient delivery of education. He added he was meeting with teachers regularly and hearing about the pressures they’re under. Dr. McKersie acknowledged that everyone is feeling pressure these days. He said that over the last 20 years of his career in education, he has felt the pressure increase, and that in just the few months he’s been in Greenwich there have been state mandates for accountability and assessment systems and racial balance for town schools to go along with fiscal concerns.
“In the private sector we may be turning it back to a positive, but everything I see in the public finance side of things is that we are in a dire place,” Dr. McKersie said. “Greenwich is in a dire place. Connecticut is in a dire place. Most states are in a dire place. I don’t know a district in the country, public funding-wise, that isn’t having to make some tough decisions. All of that is upon us.”
When asked about head count of staff by the committee, Dr. McKersie said the decision to make these cuts were tough, and he said more were coming. He didn’t specify when and where those jobs would be eliminated, but he did say, “We’re about to go into other announcements around support issues.” Because of this, Dr. McKersie said, head count at Havemeyer was no longer an issue and the staff there was needed to meet the service needs of students.
“You are the ones who will ultimately decide, and I respect that, but this is not a head count issue at the moment,” Dr. McKersie told the committee.
The centerpiece of the school budget remains an emphasis on digital learning. Initially the district was set to move more aggressively on this, but it is now spreading out implementation over several years. Dr. McKersie said the district is completely committed to digital learning, and that this was not being done because of cost concerns. Rather, he said, the outside consultant brought in for implementation initially found that teachers, principals and students were concerned that digital learning was moving too fast without a proper infrastructure within the classroom. The program was found to be very popular, though, with teachers and administrators.
Benjamin Branyan, the district’s managing director of operations, explained that the original plan had been to spend $1.1 million in the next budget to purchase digital devices for teachers and a phased rollout for students. This would have involved just under 5,300 devices, software and professional development. In year two, more devices would have been purchased. Mr. Branyan called this a placeholder number, put in because of how early the budget process starts. As the process continued, though, it became apparent that the strategy had to be revised.
“We still need that dollar amount, but we are going to modify how we got to it,” Mr. Branyan said.
The digital learning presentation from the district went over well with BET Chairman Michael Mason, who joked that the biggest issue was what kids would substitute for “The dog ate my homework.” Representative Town Meeting member Christine Edwards suggested they say instead, “Someone stole my laptop.”
BET Budget Committee Chairman Joseph Pellegrino told Dr. McKersie that he felt his focus here was “spot on.”
“There’s no question we have to move to a digital learning environment,” Mr. Pellegrino said. “I feel passionately about that. There’s no doubt that we have to prepare our children for a world they’re stepping into.”
He said the one thing he couldn’t do, though, was write a blank check.
“Do we want to allocate funds here? We absolutely want to,” Mr. Pellegrino said. “The question is, What are we allocating it to? I need a concrete plan.”
Dr. McKersie said the district was “very close, within a matter of days” of nailing down the plan and it would consult fully with the BET to help it make a decision.
Another key aspect of the all-day discussion was building upkeep. Once the district’s capital budget was reduced to bring it into line with BET guidelines, there were concerns about needed maintenance projects being delayed. First Selectman Peter Tesei already has proposed restoring funding for an emergency generator at Eastern Middle School, and other parents and citizens have said building maintenance needs to be a priority to avoid situations where deferred maintenance at Hamilton Avenue and Glenville schools resulted in the buildings falling into such disrepair that they had to be completely rebuilt.
Mr. Pellegrino said he had heard the criticism of the BET in this area but he didn’t think it was fair, and he spoke directly to Ms. Moriarty about it.
“Oftentimes when I listen to your board meetings and I listen to the public and speakers representing different constituency groups, I’m struck by almost a negativity and a harshness of how poor off our facilities are,” Mr. Pellegrino said. “My opinion is they’re not that bad. I’m questioning if there is something we could and should be doing. Do we need to do something educationally? Do we need to start correcting some of the statements that are made publicly that simply don’t reflect the reality of our school system?”
Ms. Moriarty noted that there “is probably a little disconnect” between the district administration’s view of school buildings and that of members of the public who are using it every day.
“Our buildings are mechanically sound,” Ms. Moriarty said. “They are safe environments. They are watertight. They function and deliver what you need for the basic classroom. Are they aesthetically pleasing in all the cases? No. Are some of the bathrooms 50 years old? Yes. Do they work? Yes. Are they disgusting? Yes. So there is a balance. There is some need for some of those projects, but the challenge we have always is to balance some of the infrastructure things people don’t see on a daily basis with some of the more aesthetic projects, which are also important.”
The Budget Committee continued its departmental reviews through this week. The next key date is Wednesday, Feb. 20, when the committee will look at the capital budget. On Tuesday, Feb. 26, the committee will begin its consolidation day to bring all aspects of the budget together, and on Feb. 28 it will be “decision day,” when a vote will be held to send the budget to the full BET for consideration in March.