$147 million school budget unveiled

It’s officially budget season in Greenwich again now that the Greenwich Public Schools have unveiled their $146,817,268 proposal for 2015-16.

Superintendent of Schools William McKersie led the presentation on Nov. 6 and said the proposed budget showed the district’s commitment to being fiscally responsible. It is a 2% increase over the current 2014-15 budget, with investment in areas like the New Lebanon School building project, digital learning, curriculum improvements, and the strategic plan for the district as a whole. The budget also features a relatively flat staffing increase, because while people are being brought in, staff is also slated to be let go next year.

“This budget is about accelerating achievement for all students,” Dr. McKersie said. “The vast majority of investment areas are for all students. … We’re doing this in a very targeted way to go deeper with the work we’ve been doing for a while. We’re trying to strengthen our ability to analyze what we do, plan, get the right actions and evaluate those in a continuous way so we’re constantly working on improvement. This budget is about hard-earned fiscal responsibility. We owe it to the town that invests so heavily in education. We honor and respect that.”

The staffing adjustment is a key part of the budget. The district is slated to reduce head count by 5.5 full-time positions, creating a savings of $467,500. This includes 2.5 full-time positions for foreign language instruction at the district elementary schools, though not for English as a Second Language (ESL) programs, and 3.0 positions for coaches in the district. That’s part of an overall district shift in the use of coaches, moving away from a mix of coaches based on subject area and toward a smaller number of districtwide coaches focusing on all areas of instruction.

Dr. McKersie pledged that these changes would have no negative impact on instruction and children would not be feeling them in the classroom.

Under the budget breakdown, 91% of the increase over last year goes toward salary obligations in labor contracts. The additional spending includes $69,440 for English/language arts, $161,900 for advanced science and $109,490 for social studies. Dr. McKersie called this a “major investment” but particularly pointed to the $2,872,000 being asked for as part of Phase III of the district’s ongoing digital learning plan implementation. The plan is being implemented over several years, and Dr. McKersie said the current cost estimate for it is close to $13 million over seven years, a cost savings from the original estimate of $17 million over five years.

“This budget does provide us tools to deepen our monitoring, our analysis and our planning and actions for improvement,” Dr. McKersie said. “It also is a budget about accelerating achievement. We want to increase the pace of learning for all our students because we want to insure growth in achievement so students can be prepared for success in career and college. We’re accelerating achievement and increasing the pace. We’re really looking at student growth, and at the heart of that is a more personalized instruction for every student in the district.”

Dr. McKersie was quick to point to how small the budget increase is for next year, a move that has already met with approval from town fiscal stewards, even in the face of an expected increase in enrollment, something he said the town had asked for. He noted that this has been a downward spending trend, as the budget in 2013-14 was a 2.72% increase, in 2014-15 it was a 2.10% increase, and it is down to 2% this year.

“I want to talk about how lean and efficient this budget is, and it was not easy to get to that,” Dr. McKersie said. “I want to stress that.”

Board of Education Chairman Barbara O’Neill praised the budget as “tight and lean” and said that means “many tough choices” had to be made as she thanked Dr. McKersie and the district’s cabinet and staff for their work.

While there was not much debate among the board members about the specifics of the budget, one item that did raise eyebrows was the proposed $270,000 for a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) magnet program at Hamilton Avenue School, including hiring a full-time coach there to help with program development. The town is to implement a new magnet theme at the school as part of the racial balance plan approved by the state, and board member Peter Sherr asked when STEM had actually been approved by the board, questioning how decisions were being made.

“The change in the coaching and professional development model and STEM and the full-time coordinator are all policy decisions,” Mr. Sherr said. “These are programmatic decisions, and I was a little bit put off by them showing at the time of the budget. The budget should really be about the budget, and it shouldn’t be where we’re also trying to digest, understand and try to make major shifts in the way we’re going to deliver things.”

Mr. Sherr said this was tying a decision about initiatives to the budget vote, which was outside of the typical process since they were usually handled separately. He asked for more information about the changes because he didn’t want to be making decisions “on the fly.” Mr. Sherr said he didn’t want to slow the process down but was concerned about making major changes through budget decisions and specifically noted the decision to implement STEM.

“We haven’t had a districtwide decision,” Mr. Sherr said. “We’ve had it piecemeal.”

Ms. O’Neill responded by saying the idea of STEM at Hamilton Avenue School had been discussed “pretty extensively” in previous meetings, but Mr. Sherr claimed it had never been an official agenda item. Ms. O’Neill added that the staffing decisions were best left to the administration because “it is not a policy decision that the board would deal with.”

“If the superintendent thinks a coach for STEM is needed at Hamilton Avenue and to turn the coaches into subject matter coaches, that’s up to the superintendent to make that decision,” Ms. O’Neill said, causing Mr. Sherr to fire back, “In your opinion.”

Ms. O’Neill then repeated it was up to the board to implement policy and up to the superintendent to manage staff.

Mr. Sherr said he was “happy overall” with the budget and praised how fiscally responsible he thought it was.

Board member Laura Erickson also expressed concern about the change in coaches and what this meant for teachers in the district. She said that teachers were so important in the classroom that she was worried this was a shortsighted decision.

“Obviously fewer coaches means that fewer teachers will have access to those researches,” Ms. Erickson said.

Dr. McKersie said he felt this new model for coaching would end up being more efficient for teachers in the district. He said not only did it provide cost savings but the instructional approach on a broader basis would allow for more direct help in subject areas based on needs in each school.

The presentation was just the first step for the school budget, which will now be deliberated by the Board of Education. There will be the chance for public comment on the proposal at the Nov. 20 board meeting at the International School at Dundee, and specific budget meetings are set for both Nov. 24 and Dec. 11 at Cos Cob School. There will also be chances for public comment at those meetings as well as the Dec. 18 meeting at Greenwich High School where the budget is expected to be voted upon.

Once the budget is passed, it goes before the BET’s Budget Committee for review starting in February. The full BET is scheduled to vote in March on the entire municipal budget for 2015-16, and the Representative Town Meeting will have the final say in May.

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