Board approves school budget

Despite continued disagreement over the district’s plan to restructure its teaching coach model, the Board of Education voted to approve its $147-million operational budget at its final meeting of 2014 last Thursday.

That vote approved the $146,817,268 budget originally proposed by Superintendent William McKersie and Greenwich Public Schools without any changes. That figure reflects a 2% increase from the previous year, as recommended in the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) budget guidelines.

While putting forward the motion that would eventually approve it, board member Peter Bernstein described the budget as being fiscally responsible and in line with the desires of those involved in the budgeting process. Representing the Greenwich Education Association, the district’s teachers’ union, president Carol Sutton expressed support for the budget, which was echoed by PTA Council President Lisa Harkness.

“The budget is a tool to provide the personnel and materials necessary to deliver an outstanding education to our students, and I think this budget does just that,” Board of Education Chairman Barbara O’Neill said. “It’s a balance of cuts and additions that respond to many of the requests the board had in terms of advanced science and a comprehensive assessment system.”

As a part of the proposed budget, the district plans to reduce the number of teaching coaches from 11 to eight, allowing for some $250,000 in funds to be redirected elsewhere and for the current coaching structure to be revamped. All district coaches will have the option of re-applying for their positions, but will be deployed in a different manner.

Currently, the district has nine coaches focusing on specialized subject areas with just two focused on general instruction. Dr. McKersie stressed the district’s desire to broaden the focus of the district’s coaches to more general instruction, highlighting the need for flexibility at the elementary school level. However, as he described the difference between the current model and the planned restructuring, he asked that the “generalist” and “specialist” terms that had populated previous discussions not be used to distinguish one plan from the other.

“This has never been a proposal about generalization; I don’t know where that got into the lexicon,” Dr. McKersie said. “Publicly in the last couple of meetings I’ve asked us to get that out of the lexicon, because this is about instructional expertise with skilled content expertise. The best research on this issue in the nation would say that you need to have flexibility grounded in expertise. Expertise here is instructional expertise that cuts across a range of disciplines.”

Members of the board raised a number of concerns with the coaching change, ranging from its implementation to the decision to cut funding from the program. With incoming changes to the district curriculum and new state tests on the horizon, the majority of board members expressed a desire to retain more than the eight coaching positions proposed by the district.

Board Vice Chairman Jennifer Dayton motioned for a flat rate increase of 2.1% instead of the proposed 2%, suggesting that the additional funds be used to retain two of the three lost coaching positions. Fellow member Adriana Ospina backed the motion, accusing the district of prioritizing fiscal responsibility over the need for coaches.

“The superintendent at no moment has said this is a budget based on what we need,” Ms. Ospina said. “The superintendent has said that this is a budget based on BET guidelines. … I’m not saying you’re wrong in finding guidelines, I think you have to, it’s a very respectful thing to do. As I’ve said, the BET is in its right role in setting guidelines, but I do not think I heard wrong when you said this is a budget that meets the budget [guidelines].”

Dr. McKersie defended the decision to cut coaching positions, and asserted that the choice was made in the interest of wise investment, rather than to satisfy budget guidelines.

“This budget is built completely on the needs of the district, it’s an investment budget. We invest more than we take away,” he said. “There’s over $1 million in new money put into the budget, and we’ve had to make very hard decisions to make sure we’re staying fiscally responsible and frankly to protect the major investments here on the capital side and on the operating side. … I hope that we can just focus on those needs, and that there are different ways to get to those needs.”

Ms. Dayton’s motion split the board with a 4-4 vote, failing to pass. A second motion, from Peter von Braun, that funds being added to the district’s professional development budget be reallocated to the coaching program in order to keep all 11 coaches in place, failed as well. While he chose not to support the motion requesting a budget increase, Peter Sherr supported the second motion, saying that individualized coaching was key to professional development in both the private and public spheres.

Mr. Bernstein chose not to oppose the district’s plan for teaching coaches, citing a lack of metrics that prove the program’s effectiveness. He suggested that the board’s attempts to increase the number of coaches would “handcuff” the superintendent in his efforts to maximize the effectiveness of the program.

“There’s no evidence that coaches actually increase development of students or raise achievement,” Mr. Bernstein said. “This is the second year I’ve asked for metrics and none can be provided that actually document their use and how they do raise achievement.”

Ms. O’Neill expressed her trust in the district’s plan, choosing to support Dr. McKersie’s planned remodel.

“I think the superintendent, along with his administration, has come to the conclusion, after much study, that he can provide an outstanding education to the students in the district without the coaches,” Ms. O’Neill said.

In the end, Mr. Bernstein’s motion to approve the budget as proposed by the district was approved with a 5-3 vote, with Mr. Sherr, Ms. Ospina and Mr. von Braun maintaining their disagreement. With the Board of Education’s approval, the budget will move on to the BET for consideration starting in February before the Budget Committee. Once approved there, it will go before the full BET and then the Representative Town Meeting for a final vote in May.

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