Budget committee examines school spending

Superintendent of Schools William McKersie explained to the BET’s Budget Committee the district’s fiscal plan, including the addition of staff, at the budget hearings. — Ken Borsuk

Superintendent of Schools William McKersie explained to the BET’s Budget Committee the district’s fiscal plan, including the addition of staff, at the budget hearings. — Ken Borsuk

As part of its overall look at the town’s budget, the school system’s proposed education spending of $143.9 million came under scrutiny by the town’s financial overseers on Feb. 6.

The Board of Estimate and Taxation’s (BET’s) Budget Committee spent hours on Feb. 6 listening to school district chiefs outline the budget that is a 2.1% increase over last year. That number drew the praise of Budget Committee Chairman Marc Johnson.

“We really appreciate the effort that has gone into that,” he said.

One area that caught the eye of the committee was the fact the district was adding staff even as enrollment dropped slightly. Superintendent William McKersie delivered a strong defense of the move and said it is not a case of bureaucracy building at the district’s office in the Havemeyer Building.

“Don’t look at Havemeyer as this big central place with all these bodies that aren’t doing anything with the kids,” he said.  “If it is added at Havemeyer it has to have a direct tie to the school level and programming for students.”

He added that he did make cutbacks at the administrative level last year.

“Last year I cut back our central administration, and that was not easy. We are still working through the morale issues with what happened at Havemeyer,” he said. “Quite frankly, I think that is a concern.”

BET Chairman Michael Mason, in the audience for the meeting along with several other colleagues as well as the Board of Education and Representative Town Meeting, expressed some concerns about the increase in staff numbers even as the district is expected to see a drop of 87 students.

“Enrollment is going down and we are adding that type of head count?” he asked about the increase of 16 staff. The staff numbers are called full-time equivalent and are composed of full-time staff and staff through grants created throughout the district.

Benjamin Branyan, managing director of operations for the district, backed up Dr. McKersie’s comments.

“The enrollment is one consideration of staffing,” he said. “It is also about program needs and student needs.”

He said lower enrollment numbers have affected the teaching numbers.

“In the budget that is before you, we’re down 4.2 staff just in teaching because of the enrollment allocations, but we are up elsewhere based on student needs and program needs,” Mr. Branyan said. “We’re trying to be fiscally conservative.”

Committee members questioned the costs involved in the legal requirement that the district provide services to special education students, even those from out of state who attend private schools in town. Leslie Tarkington suggested that an opinion piece be written to inform the public of these costs, but Dr. McKersie cautioned against trying to “pin things” on special education students.

“Fundamentally we want to serve our children well … and we can’t get in to discussions and pin things on special education children,” Dr. McKersie said.

Mary Forde, director of pupil personnel services and special education, said the law came into effect in 1975 with the intention of the federal government funding the program.

“It was anticipated at the time it was passed the federal government would kick in 40%,” Ms. Forde said. “I don’t think they have kicked in even 20%.”

Ms. Tarkington’s fellow committee member Jeffrey Ramer admitted he was also concerned about the issue. He said he understood the town’s requirement to provide busing for private school students within town, but said he couldn’t understand how the town is responsible for services for special education students who attend Greenwich’s private schools.

“That’s a different package than the expenses that we incur to render at least the assessment services for kids who live in Westchester [County] and parents who choose to send their children to a parochial or private school in Greenwich. Maybe it’s a small number and I don’t know why I am getting so stuck on it,” Mr. Ramer said.

It could be worse, Ms. Forde said, as she said school districts in New York state face an even greater cost than Connecticut districts.

“Just be glad you don’t live in New York,” she said. “New York requires that they provide all of the special education services for every student who attends private school in New York, including transportation within 50 miles.”

Deputy Superintendent Ellen Flanagan spoke about the district’s work in improving teacher quality and education through the SEED (System of Educator Evaluation and Development) program.

The system’s scoring is broken down into four sections, with student growth and performance, and observation and performance, at 45% and 40%, respectively, the largest elements. The balance is composed of peer or parent feedback and student feedback at 10% and 5% respectively.

Mr. Ramer was concerned that the system doesn’t encourage a teacher to “reach for the moon.”

“I am seeing relatively little that encourages the people who are being evaluated from striving for a higher bar,” Mr. Ramer said. “I am not seeing a dramatic push to encourage the teacher to reach for the moon.”

Dr. Flanagan defended the system and said it does encourage teachers to go beyond the baseline set for student achievement.

“We have a very robust assessment system in this district,” she said.

Director of Human Resources Robert Lichtenfeld reassured the BET members that the district pays close attention to teacher quality.

“We work closely with the administration and we weed out those teachers who don’t meet the standards,” he said.

Phil Dunn, director of digital learning and technology for the district, said the project is about the use of technology in education but said it ultimately comes back to people.

“We are making primarily an investment in people,” he said. “We want to realize that sweet spot of allowing professionals to be professionals and exercise their discretion while at the same time offer a universal, consistent experience for every student.”

This meeting was just the beginning of a lengthy look at every aspect of the town’s proposed $397 million 2014-15 municipal budget. The budget committee is currently in the midst of meetings with department heads to look over every aspect of the budget and on Feb. 19, another key meeting will be held as the committee looks at the town’s capital budget.

On Feb. 25, the committee will hold what is known as “consolidation day” where the department budgets are put together for a final committee vote scheduled for Feb. 27, which is unofficially called “decision day.” Once the budget is approved by the committee, which can make additions and deletions or place conditions on expenditures, it will go for the full BET for a vote on March 20, which will be preceded by a public hearing on March 18.

The budget will ultimately go before the RTM for a final vote in May.

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