Superintendent unveils $144-million school budget

The new Board of Education has been elected, but before it can take office, the old board still has key business to attend to, namely starting the ball rolling on the 2014-15 school budget.

At a special meeting on Nov. 7, Superintendent of Schools William McKersie gave the official unveiling of the proposed $143,939,653 budget, a 2.10% increase over the current year that Dr. McKersie called “modest.” He told the board and parents that it provided for “academic excellence and student well-being for each and every student in the Greenwich Public Schools” and pledged that it would use town and district resources “efficiently and thoughtfully.”

“This is a very tight and very efficient budget,” Dr. McKersie said. “This budget is even tighter than last year’s budget in terms of growth. The growth is really driven in two areas, changes in curriculum and program staffing and resources designed to advance academic excellence and support student well-being. That’s nearly 58% of that 2.1% growth. The balance, or the remaining 42% of that growth, is for contractual salary obligations.”

Dr. McKersie said the budget would address board goals in reading, writing and math. For reading, Dr. McKersie said, there would be an “explicit focus” on small group instruction to increase the level to 83% of third graders at goal level by state standards by 2015, while also analyzing data to determine just how effective district instructional strategies and interventions are. In writing, the focus would be on opinion and argumentative writing to get the number of eighth graders at goal to 87% by 2015. There would also be work to implement and develop new Common Core standards. In mathematics, Dr. McKersie said, the focus would be on the ongoing implementation of the new K-5 curriculum and getting students to the level of 75% of eighth graders taking and passing Algebra I.

“This budget, where there is growth, is totally and solely focused on the school and classroom level; 92% of the budget is somehow directly related to students,” Dr. McKersie said. “Only about 8% relates to the central administration and even there there are moneys in that portion that are substantially focused on the framework here of academic excellence, student well-being and student support.”

The district will also be preparing the new math curriculum for sixth through eighth grade during the 2014-15 year, and to do that, Dr. McKersie has proposed spending $156,537 on materials and professional learning. The budget also includes funding for the AVID program at Greenwich High School, a Greenwich Alliance for Education-created program helping students be the first ones in their family to attend college. The $17,212 in the budget is slated to expand the program to Central Middle School as well as prepare it for implementation at Western Middle School.

There is also $117,000 set aside in the budget for immigrant youth educational services. Dr. McKersie said this money had been previously provided by a grant for which the town was no longer eligible because of changes in the population numbers in Greenwich.

There is also money in the budget for the second year of the digital learning program implementation. The budget currently calls for $992,000 for districtwide implementation of the program, which is currently under way at Hamilton Avenue and Riverside schools, to all sixth graders. That means professional learning for teachers as well as support to prepare for the actual devices to be purchased and distributed.

The full roll-out of the program is slated for 2015-16, and that is currently projected to be at a cost of $3 million. Overall, the six-year projection is now at $13.8 million, a reduction from last year’s estimate of $17.7 million.

“That nearly $18-million number was based off one consultant’s report,” Dr. McKersie said. “Now that we’re running this program and managing it, we brought that down to nearly $14 million. We’re bringing the cost structure way down. We can discuss this more over the next couple of weeks, but it is a robust, very well-planned program with very definite outcome and process measures.”

In terms of focusing on the district’s achievement gap, Dr. McKersie said there would be a continued look toward the concentration of low-income students in Greenwich at Hamilton Avenue, New Lebanon and Julian Curtiss schools as well as at Western Middle School. A plan to address the achievement gap is expected to be delivered to the Board of Education by the district administration by March targeting those four schools.

“The urgency driving this is in two respects,” Dr. McKersie said. “There’s a rapidly changing population in Greenwich. This is well known but has to be repeated. We’ve seen a large increase percentage-wise in the proportion of low-income students in our schools and the concentration, particularly at Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon, is northwards of 50% up towards 60% and higher. We’ve also seen quite a dramatic change in the racial and ethnic mix in our schools. … We are now up to roughly 32% students of color. This is very, very exciting for Greenwich, but it also means that if you just look back nine, 10 years ago, this is a very different district.”

As part of the plan coming next March, Dr. McKersie pledged that the school communities would be involved. Noting extensive and ongoing discussions in the district about school choice and racial balance, Dr. McKersie said there was no focus on school choice in the budget yet because the board is still working on a plan to proceed and  because, even with school choice, there would still be a large percentage of low-income students in those schools.

“We need to go back and work with the principals and the parents and the teachers on what is the best high-quality programming we can have in these schools,” Dr. McKersie said.

Board members had a brief discussion on the budget during the less-than-hourlong meeting, but a far more extensive question-and-answer period is expected at a Nov. 26 meeting. That is one of two meetings, the other one set for Dec. 12, that will be committed to discussing the budget. Those meetings will be with the new board in place, as the members are set to be sworn in before the Nov. 21 meeting at North Street School.

The board is set to vote on the budget at its Dec. 19 meeting at Greenwich High School. Once that happens, it will go to the Board of Estimate and Taxation for consideration along with the rest of the municipal budget and, ultimately, to the Representative Town Meeting in May.


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