School budget gets vote tonight

The proposed $147-million school budget is up for a vote tonight at the Board of Education’s final meeting of the year, but there’s still much uncertainty over proposed changes to academic coaches.

The 2015-16 budget has a flat staffing level despite new hires in areas like developing the Hamilton Avenue School science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) magnet program. In order to do this, head count is set to be reduced by 5.5 full-time positions, including 3.0 coaching positions, as the district shifts toward having a mix of coaches based on content in a subject area and toward a smaller number of districtwide coaches that concentrate on all areas of instruction. Coaches work with teachers to improve classroom performance.

There has been concern about the change from the Greenwich Education Association (GEA), which serves as the town’s teachers’ union, and board members have expressed skepticism that this is the best thing for the district. That skepticism continued into last Thursday’s budget meeting, which was the last time the board was scheduled to meet in open session before tonight’s budget vote, which will be at the 7 p.m. meeting at Greenwich High School.

Superintendent of Schools William McKersie and the district cabinet have contended that this shift in the coaching model is being done to “broaden support to all curricular areas,” allowing for the proven best strategies to be used in the classroom through all grades and subjects.

What is known as a “white paper” was distributed to the board and the public at the Dec. 11 budget meeting explaining the district’s rationale and stating, “Content expertise will still be essential but led by an emphasis on the instructional approaches necessary to most effectively deliver content.” However, some board members seemed unconvinced, adding a touch of intrigue to tonight’s vote, which is often done unanimously. Several offered up scenarios of how it could potentially act.

Board member Peter Sherr said he favored restoring funding for the coaches and finding other areas to cut from the budget to keep it at the level of $146,817,268, which is a 2% increase over last year’s budget and falls within guidelines set by the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET). Mr. Sherr said he was “not comfortable” with the proposal because he wasn’t convinced enough time had been spent seeing whether the current model was effective.

“I’m not convinced that we have allowed enough time for this model and we’re already quick to change it to something else,” Mr. Sherr said. He later added, “At the moment I feel very strongly that this cut is actually the wrong cut. I think we should be putting more wood behind the arrow on instructional coaches. I don’t know that I’m on board cutting the number of coaches from 11 to 8. I would actually be looking for other parts of the budget to increase coaching. I’m going to be looking myself to figure out if there are other areas of the budget where I can convince some of my colleagues on the board to reprioritize.”

However, finding that money could be an issue, as Superintendent of Schools William McKersie has trumpeted the budget as a lean one within the guidelines put forth by the BET. Board member Peter von Braun did not advocate adding coaching money back in to the proposed budget but did ask hypothetically what would happen if a budget was submitted above the 2% guideline with no increase in the overall head count. Board member Adriana Ospina followed that up, questioning the priorities of that discussion.

“Since when do we make our decision based on BET guidelines, not what’s best for the kids?” Ms. Ospina said. “I think the guidelines are guidelines and the guidelines are not taking into consideration increased enrollment. I think whichever is the decision, if we have coaches or not, the decision should be based on what the district needs to move our kids forward and not what the BET has said we need.”

BET guidelines are not mandatory in their definition, so the board could submit one above this unofficial limit. However, the BET has the ability to cut town department budgets, meaning it could then have a reduction imposed upon it. The guideline process has become far more contentious in recent years as guidelines again this year were established without the support of the six BET Democrats, who wanted looser guidelines allowing for additional spending if necessary. The six Republicans voted for the tighter guidelines, though, and BET Chairman Michael Mason cast a tie-breaking vote.

Board member Laura Erickson said she was worried the impact of this change would be felt in the classroom, despite Dr. McKersie’s assurances it would not, and described herself as “very reluctant” to approve the proposal. She said she didn’t want to see the district in a position where teachers needed help and it was too late to get it for them.

“I know we have learning facilitators, but they also have teaching responsibilities,” Ms. Erickson said. “We have peer mentors, but they also have teaching responsibilities. Administrators are in the classroom, but they’re also evaluators, so there’s a relationship that might not be as clear-cut when you’re evaluating someone and not strictly coaching them. I’m appreciative of the effort to retool the model. It’s a dynamic model and there’s a lot going on at the teacher model, but I wonder if there’s any data from teachers about what they like better.”

Board member Debbie Appelbaum also expressed those concerns, saying she didn’t want to find the district in a deficit with the number of coaches needed to keep the focus on academic achievement. Dr. McKersie said that he understood the concern but urged everyone to see the “full context of resources” going to help Greenwich’s teachers. He later added that he was working hard to “thread the needle” between district and BET priorities and said that if he didn’t the district could be facing “very difficult cuts.”

One voice on the board in favor of the proposal was that of Chairman Barbara O’Neill, a former teacher and department head in the district. She said there was “ample evidence of support for the teachers” within the district and the board should evaluate how this new model would work.

“I think for a year it’s worth looking at,” Ms. O’Neill said. “We also have to consider what will happen if we don’t cut those positions. This is about head count. We could lose other positions. … No one likes to cut, but it’s one of those things you’re forced to do when you take a leadership position. You have to do the uncomfortable thing sometimes for the greater good.”

Carol Sutton, head of the GEA, said the union appreciated the district’s attempts to explain why the decision was made and the overall commitment to academic excellence through working with teachers. She added that the union understood that the district’s hands “were tied by strict BET guidelines.”

“If BET guidelines are absolutely set in stone with not even .1% of wiggle room and a systematic search reveals there is no other budget line from which to capture $170,000, the GEA will understand why valuable internal coaching resources were the only choice for this budget,” Ms. Sutton said. “We will also trust that other internal and external coaching resources will be augmented to fill the deficit left behind.”

Ms. Sutton also urged the board to “separate the model from the money” and spend more time working with teachers to see what they needed in a coaching model and build around that. Deputy Superintendent Ellen Flanagan said she considered this part of the “evolution” of the role of coaches within Greenwich Public Schools.

“The students and teachers need our best thinking on this, and at this point, in the priorities of the district and the focus areas that we have, we believe at this point in time the instructional strategies and best practices that cut across disciplines is our best approach for the ’15-’16 school year,” Dr. Flanagan said. “As the district evolves in ’16-’17, ’17-’18 and so on, we will continue to look at the model and I wouldn’t doubt that five years from now I could be sitting there asking you for a change in that model. We do value our coaches, and we feel this is the best approach now.”

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