MISA funding moves on after surreal meeting

After a confusing, occasionally contentious and even surreal meeting, Wednesday night the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) voted by a seven to six margin to send consideration of funding for the music instructional space and auditorium (MISA) project onto the Representative Town Meeting.

The vote was straight along party lines with the BET’s six Republicans voting against the funding and the six Democrats in favor. However, ultimately BET Chairman Michael Mason, a Republican, cast the tiebreaking vote in favor of the funding, allowing it to proceed to the RTM. This came after Mr. Mason initially indicated he would vote against breaking the tie, sending the project back to the Board of Education but before the final vote was taken, the BET’s Republicans suspended the meeting to privately caucus in what ended up being a marathon session.

After first asking for a break for five minutes, BET Republicans caucused for approximately an hour and 15 minutes before returning, at which time the meeting had to again be delayed so the BET Democrats, who had gone to a caucus of their own after close to an hour of waiting, could be found. The caucus went on so long that it caused the BET meeting to run head first into a Greenwich Republican Town Committee (RTC) meeting that was scheduled for the same room at 8 p.m., two hours after the BET went into session. This forced the RTC to move upstairs and bring along with it a treat of fresh seafood that was being provided to members.

At times during the caucus, the BET Republicans were joined by First Selectman Peter Tesei who also met with Board of Education Chairwoman Leslie Moriarty and Vice Chairman Barbara O’Neill. This led to much confusion in the Town Hall Meeting Room over what was being discussed in the closed door sessions and the confusion extended to the actual vote which had to go through complicated parliamentary procedures to be able to be made and left, at times, BET members unsure what they were actually voting for.

What is known, however, is that the MISA project is going forward with increased funding. The Board of Education had asked for $8,605,000 in funding to meet an increased price tag for MISA after construction bids came in higher than expected and the BET ultimately approved $9,866,000 to allow for an increased emergency contingency in the budget.

The project can now go forward to the RTM next month as part of the consideration of the 2013-14 municipal budget where it will once again face a very tough climate.

During the discussions on Wednesday, both Mr. Mason and BET Budget Committee Chairman Joe Pellegrino expressed concerns that there had been a breakdown in communication between their board and the Board of Education. They said they had asked the Board of Education for what their priorities were going forward but hadn’t received answers and said that they worried the MISA price tag was too high considering the upcoming digital learning initiative for the district and other issues like ongoing building maintenance, state mandated racial balance and space utilization would also need funding.

Mr. Mason said that the six BET members who voted no were “really looking for the Board of Ed to move forward” on three issues: A commitment to not ask for more than $9 million in additional capital spending requests over the next five years, a commitment to “participate equally” in addressing any future MISA cost overruns and an acknowledgment from the Board of Education that the MISA request may impact future capital requests.

“I would in normal fashion like to say that I would not exercise a tiebreaking vote unless I had some type of commitment to that, but I sense that the subject to release [on the funding] will be exercised while this board is still in office and [the Board of Education] before Election Day,” Mr. Mason said. “Many people have said they don’t support MISA or they do and you’ve heard a lot of talk about a relationship and how town government operates and how the culture is. Nathaniel Witherell comes to mind. The town had four or five opportunities to decide if we want to be in this business or not and the town is going to have to decide if it wants to be in the MISA business or not and whether the Board of Ed can make a decision or not to work as the fourth leg of the barstool.”

The use of the term “barstool” was a reference to an earlier metaphor by Mr. Mason where he described a “BET barstool” that he said was made up of four legs representing the Board of Selectmen, the RTM, the BET and the Board of Education that he said had to be “in balance” on issues so things “would not shake.”

“We’re out of balance just a little bit,” Mr. Mason said.

The subject to release,  where the Board of Education would meet with the BET to make sure certain benchmarks were met before funding was released, was set last year and is still in place.

“We need to be at the table for these discussions,” Mr. Mason told Ms. Moriarty and the several Board of Education members who attended the meeting.

Ms. Moriarty told the Post after the vote that she hadn’t expected some of the reaction her board got from the BET on Wednesday.

“I’m a little surprised,” Ms. Moriarty said. “I think there’s been good communication. We meet on a regular calendar and we have had them come to our public meetings and I speak with the members of the BET. However, if they feel there is a need for additional communication I will try and resolve that.”

And while the Board of Education had been hoping for a unanimous show of support from the BET for MISA, Ms. Moriarty said she was happy to at least be going forward with the project.

“I think it’s a mixed message that the BET is sending to the RTM,” Ms. Moriarty said. “I heard them say they support the project and they have a concern that the Board of Education won’t continue to be a cooperative partner with them on developing budgets in the future but the Board of Education has given them no evidence that won’t continue.”

Additional coverage will appear in the May 2 edition of the Post.


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