After surreal meeting: MISA funding moves on

BET Chairman Michael Mason ultimately cast the tie-breaking vote to send MISA onward after a frustrating meeting last week.

BET Chairman Michael Mason ultimately cast the tie-breaking vote to send MISA onward after a frustrating meeting last week.

Funding for a new high school auditorium and classroom space has survived its latest challenge, but only barely.

After a confusing, occasionally contentious and even surreal meeting last Wednesday night, the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) voted by a 7-6 margin to send consideration of funding for the music instructional space and auditorium (MISA) project on to the Representative Town Meeting (RTM).

The vote was straight along party lines, with the BET’s six Republicans voting against the funding and the six Democrats in favor. However, BET Chairman Michael Mason, a Republican, ultimately 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 recessed 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.

Mason explains

In an interview with the Post on Tuesday, Mr. Mason said he ended up voting to break the tie in MISA’s favor in order to be consistent. Just as with the BET’s vote years ago to send consideration of The Nathaniel Witherell’s Project Renew to the RTM, Mr. Mason said, the project deserved to be heard by the body so it could make a determination after hearing all the facts.

Mr. Mason called MISA “a good project” but said he and his Republican colleagues continued to be concerned about the Board of Education’s priorities. He said that with MISA, along with expected expenditures for digital learning and a request to go beyond the $8 million in capital expenditures for maintenance called for by the BET’s budget guidelines, there was a lot going on and not enough “clarity” about what could be called for in the future. Mr. Mason said there continues to be uncertainty about the costs of digital learning and noted the tendency of the board to go after new initiatives, something that could be attributed to frequent superintendent turnover in recent years.

When asked why the caucus took so long, Mr. Mason said it was not anyone’s intention to make people wait as long as it took but the discussion began and took off quickly. Mr. Mason reported the key area discussed was whether to suspend the meeting so the Board of Education could meet as scheduled the next night and attempt to come back with a revised plan or more clarity into how it viewed spending priorities. Mr. Mason said that he thought the board would have attempted to do it if asked, but ultimately he said it wouldn’t be feasible to do in one night.

Several sources close to the Democratic caucus told the Post that the members would have attempted to block any attempt to suspend the meeting to another night and force a vote that night to get people on the record with their views.

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 at times left BET members unsure what they were actually voting for.

Contingency increased

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 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 may 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 what its priorities were going forward but hadn’t received answers, and said they worried the MISA price tag was too high, considering that 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 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 instead of $10 million or more, 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 when 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.

School board reaction

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.”

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.”

At the Board of Education’s April 25 meeting, Ms. Moriarty said that she believed there was “room for improvement” in the district’s capital model and that it would be looked at going forward. However, she said she was unclear about what the BET was asking for in terms of future capital plans and how the MISA funding could impact other projects, particularly when it came to a request to look at removing $1 million a year in capital funding for maintenance over the next five years to pay for the MISA funding.

“We have to understand what the implications are for us as a board and we don’t have that information available tonight,” Ms. Moriarty said. “I think there has to be additional conversations between the Board of Education and the BET on what that means for us, what that means for MISA and what that means for the rest of our capital plan, and then our board can determine how best to respond.”

Board of Education member Adriana Ospina noted that while there was discussion about cuts to future capital budgets and concerns about future cost overruns, the BET actually did not pass any new conditions, which she said was “typical of the meeting,” and she said she had “never seen anything like” the BET’s requests. Board of Education member Nancy Kail also said she took away a “total lack of clarity” from the BET and what was to be done next.

Board of Education member Steve Anderson, a former chairman, was harsher in his comments, saying the school board had to make sure there wasn’t confusion in future discussions with the BET because he considered last week’s meeting “one of the worst government meetings I have ever been to,” which earned a strong “agreed” from his colleague Jennifer Dayton.

At the BET level, the board’s Democrats pushed for the approval throughout the meeting last Wednesday. BET Democratic caucus leader William Finger told his colleagues it was unfair to “shirk responsibility” and put this on the Board of Education, calling it a “good and responsible partner.” He said it was wrong to compromise the project, a message that was echoed by those within the party.

“Those voting no have said this is not about MISA but this is about other issues they have,” Mr. Finger said. “If you have other problems and issues, I say to you that there will be time to raise those issues and address those problems. But don’t hold MISA hostage. … Take ownership of your vote. Don’t try to pawn it off on the Board of Ed not doing this or not doing that. Take ownership of your vote and let the community know if you want MISA or you don’t want MISA.”

 

[email protected]

By participating in the comments section of this site you are agreeing to our Privacy Policy and User Agreement

© Hersam Acorn. All rights reserved. The Greenwich Post, 10 Corbin Drive, Floor 3, Darien, CT 06820

Designed by WPSHOWER

Powered by WordPress