Best interests

Tonight is the scheduled vote on the 2014-15 school budget, and it seems we’ve begun another round of the endless game in Greenwich known as “Who has the authority?”

There’s no question that the budget will pass tonight. After weeks of debate and discussion, the school budget is usually an easy pass, with the only votes against it coming as protest votes. However, there is some question leading into tonight’s meeting about what the final version of the budget will look like and if it will be a direct challenge to guidelines imposed by the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET).

The current version of the approximately $147-million budget proposed by Superintendent of Schools William McKersie is a 2% increase over last year’s budget, with most of that increase coming as a result of contractually mandated salaries. In order to allow for additional spending in areas like digital learning and the launch of the new science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) magnet program at Hamilton Avenue School, there have had to be cuts to keep this budget within the BET’s guidelines.

Those cuts have come in the form of academic coaches, a position used to help teachers improve in the classroom and foster collaboration and use of best practices. Dr. McKersie and his cabinet say this is part of an overall adjustment in the district’s coaching model away from subject-specific coaches and toward more broader coaches that encompass all subject areas. But some Board of Education members are skeptical.

Some even said last week that they would not be able to support the cuts, leading to the possibility that money could be restored to the budget tonight. If this is done, additional offsets could be found to pay for it or perhaps instead the school board will put forth a budget beyond what the BET has demanded it do. This is where the questions of authority and who has the best interest of the town in mind come in.

The Town Charter is clear that the BET has the power to cut budgets if it so wishes. But the question is broader than this. The BET has not been as big a presence as usual during the budget talks. It’s as if members heard “2% increase” and decided they were satisfied. So what if such adherence to numbers is going to have a negative impact on children in the district?

The past two years, the creation of budget guidelines has been anything but simple, with BET Democrats offering up alternate guidelines and the Republicans using their tie-breaking vote to break the deadlock and put forth their vision of what the town should be spending. While these guidelines are called non-binding, the reality is they force a budget to be created entirely to the vision of select members of the BET as to what they consider to be in the town’s best interests.

The adherence to austerity in this town may keep our taxes far lower than those in neighboring communities, but it’s also helped those other places move far ahead of Greenwich in terms of common-sense investment. So who should make the final call on what’s best for Greenwich students? A Board of Education where six of the eight are there by competitive election, or 12 BET members essentially picked by the political parties?

Now it could well be that the coaching change really is the best decision. But let the vote tonight be based on that factor alone, and not due strictly to adherence to guidelines imposed by six members of the BET. That’s acting in the best interests of Greenwich schools.

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