School board chairman vote delayed again to Dec. 12


UPDATED THURSDAY 7:45 P.M. — Those hoping for a resolution of who will be the next chairman of the Greenwich Board of Education will have to wait a little while longer after the board unanimously voted to postpone a decision until Dec. 12.

The postponement followed two votes deadlocked at four apiece with all of the Republicans supporting Republican Peter Sherr and all the Democrats supporting Democrat Adriana Ospina, just like what happened at the first attempt to elect a chairman last month. Mr. Sherr made the motion to postpone until the next scheduled meeting on Dec. 12, saying he wanted to give the board more time to decide so the Board of Selectmen did not have to become involved. When the board had its first deadlocked vote on Nov. 21 it started a 30-day clock where the selectmen will step in to make a decision on the chairman if none has been elected by the school board.

A second vote was scheduled for the board’s budget discussion on Nov. 26 but instead it was delayed until tonight’s work session by a seven-to-one vote, with only Ms. Ospina voting against the postponement. Now it has been postponed again to the chagrin of many as a packed crowd, including First Selectman Peter Tesei, Selectman Drew Marzullo and Town Attorney Wayne Fox attended Thursday’s work session to see if a resolution could be reached.

In the meantime, even with the uncertainty over who will be its chairman, the Board of Education is proceeding with its work evaluating the proposed $144-million 2014-15 school budget.

Currently Vice Chairman Barbara O’Neill is serving as the acting chairman of the board, and she led last Tuesday’s discussion of the proposed $143,939,653 budget. Board members brought questions and concerns to Superintendent of Schools William McKersie at last week’s meeting, which will be followed up at the board’s next budget meeting on Dec. 12 at 7 p.m. at Cos Cob School. The board is scheduled to vote on the budget at its Dec. 19 meeting at Greenwich High School.

At the Nov. 26 meeting, the board members discussed a wide range of issues surrounding the budget with Dr. McKersie, many of which were focused on efforts to close the achievement gap. Dr. McKersie is expected to give a detailed plan to the board in March on a strategy, but $650,000 is being asked for now.

Board member Jennifer Dayton called the achievement gap “the most important challenge before the board” and said there needed to be additional refinement of the request before the money was allocated. She asked for “broad brush strokes” of how the money would be applied, noting that the specifics would come next year. Dr. McKersie, though, said that this would be “very difficult to do at this point.”

“It would be, in a sense, putting an analysis before the analysis,” Dr. McKersie said. “We could come back with broad categories but they may have to shift later. We have to do a whole school effort so we’re not just coming in with this piece and then that piece.”

Dr. McKersie said it was important to first do an analysis of what part of the $650,000 was going to be used to determine if existing resources were being used well enough so that an additional $650,000 wouldn’t have to be allocated year after year. Because of this, whatever was told to the board now in terms of broad categories could have to change when the full report was delivered next year.

Board member Peter Bernstein asked why $650,000 was the number that was asked for, and Dr. McKersie said it was pegged to research and analysis and that the request was kept low so it could first be determined what other steps needed to be taken. Mr. Sherr said he understood why there wasn’t a breakdown immediately available, but questioned how the board could govern it being spent after it was allocated. Dr. McKersie said all the specifics would be in the plan, which will require the board’s approval before it’s implemented.

Dr. McKersie compared it to last year’s allocation of $1.2 million for digital learning where the money was approved before a specific plan was revealed. He said there would be very clear definitions coming once the analysis was complete and that he hoped the timing of the analysis would dovetail well with further consideration of the budget by the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) next year.

“It will be a work in progress but we will be able to say, ‘Here’s what we’re starting to have indications of,’” Dr. McKersie said.

Digital learning was another of the several topics discussed at the meeting. The program is continuing to be deployed throughout the district after starting at Hamilton Avenue and Riverside schools, and Ms. Dayton wanted to know if it was possible to get more information to assess it before the next allocation of $992,000 as part of the multi-year investment. Ms. Dayton said she understood that the complexity of the deployment made it difficult to get assessment now but she was concerned about it, especially in a year of transition at the state level from older versions of standardized tests to newer ones.

Ben Branyon, the district’s managing director of operations, told the board that they wanted the metrics, too, but this was “uncharted territory” for everyone.

“We are being very cautious about this,” Mr. Branyon said. “You will not see an exact return on investment tied exactly to standardized test scores in year one. There needs to be a percolation period. … There’s a lot that goes into changing instructional practice and doing all those things to get the end result. What the appropriate timeline is for that is what we’re going to have a discussion about. Metrics are certainly being developed and we’re going to make sure we have those so there can be evaluation of year one.”

Mr. Branyon said he would like to have those metrics set by spring of 2014 and Dr. McKersie said no other district was doing this that they could turn to as a model. Mr. Sherr said he was concerned about not having answers for the BET when it asked about the progress of money that had already been spent on digital learning and what the money in this year’s budget would do.

The board is also discussing a focus on the middle schools. While the administration has not indicated it plans to conduct an in-depth study of the district’s three middle schools and there is no funding for it in the current budget, board members wondered if it was necessary to make sure the schools are operating as efficiently as possible. No official motion has been made to ask for that study, but Ms. O’Neill did express support for it as part of developing long-range plans for the middle schools, possibly through reallocation of funds originally slated for middle school assistant principals.

“This is such an important link in our school system,” Ms. O’Neill said. “I think it’s been neglected for years and years. We lose students to private schools as we approach middle school and I think we need to regroup, take a good look and decide what we really want to happen in those middle schools to make the transition to high school easier. We need to have a comprehensive sixth-to-12th-grade perspective.”

Board member Laura Erickson said she agreed it was important, but said she was unsure about making it a priority for the upcoming year.

“I think there’s an awful lot on our plate already,” Ms. Erickson said.

Ms. Ospina said she didn’t want to do anything to impact staffing at the schools in the proposed budget.

“I think we need to put our money where our mouth is,” Ms. Ospina said. “We keep saying that we want to improve student achievement and that the biggest impact on student achievement is the quality of teachers. We keep saying we need to provide mental support to our students and the superintendent has proposed a way to do that. … If we’re asking the superintendent to make sure our teachers are the right people on the job and are given the support they need to do even better, we have to give him the means to supervise and support and guide them. I don’t want to give mixed messages.”


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