Board’s priorities may clash with BET’s

No budget guidelines have been formally established yet, but the Board of Education and the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) could well find themselves with competing ideas about school spending.

The BET is in the process of establishing its guidelines for the 2013-14 budget and while the guidelines are non-binding language, it does give a sense of what the board is thinking about next year’s budget and how much it is, and is not, willing to spend. And at last week’s Board of Education meeting, the board gave its first, preliminary review of potential capital spending next year, getting an estimate that it would cost $10 million, which is above the $8-million figure the BET is circling in its guidelines.

The tentative 2013-14 capital improvement plan for the district was introduced at the board meeting by Benjamin Branyan, the district’s managing director of operations, and Rob Matten, the director of facilities. The report includes the projects that are considered priorities for the district from a maintenance and improvement standpoint including replacing windows, removing asbestos, upgrading heating and cooling systems, renovating bathrooms and finishing wi-fi installation at Greenwich High School.

This part of the budget does not include funding for educational programs, salaries or classroom supplies.

“Health and safety are the main issues we were focused on and we also focused on maintenance,” Mr. Branyan said. “We wanted to make sure we had equity amongst the schools but some schools may not have a lot done [under the plan] because they are newer schools.”

The scheduled projects for the next school year are tied to an ongoing 15-year capital plan for the district that was established in 2009. The district stressed that the projects that are looking for funding in the 2013-14 budget were not randomly listed and are part of that organized plan through “decision-based considerations” where criteria had to be met for a project to be listed. The plan was put together with input from the principals after they had discussed with their staffs what the priorities were in the buildings.

“Facilities and the quality of facilities may be amongst the most important things to worry about in Greenwich, especially in the handshake that defines how schooling works with the town,” Superintendent of Schools William McKersie said. “We are funded 95% by the taxpayers of Greenwich and one of the most important returns we can provide is to make sure we’re to stand true to the quality of the facilities both inside the buildings and on the outside so that we have high level facilities and the taxpayers know their money has been well used.”

Dr. McKersie said the timing and dollars of each item on the list have a lot to do with the eight-week window during the summer within which most of these projects have to be done.

But the board’s vision for what is a spending priority may not necessarily mesh with the BET’s and that raised some concerns among the members. Board member Nancy Kail said that “$10.5 million is responsible” and said the town had to take into consideration that deferring maintenance could lead to higher costs down the line as problems become worse.

“We don’t want to be spending insane amounts in the future because we saved a couple of bucks in the short term,” Ms. Kail said.

Ms. Kail said she “wasn’t sure where the BET’s number had come from” in terms of estimating the capital costs for the district. She said that the “administration has done what we asked them to do” by submitting the report based on analysis of the district’s priorities. Board member Peter Sherr said he also wasn’t clear where the $8-million figure came from and suggested there be more of an effort made to educate the public about what these projects would do. Board member Steven Anderson agreed, saying people thought that the “big envelope items” were done, but noted that buildings like Riverside School dated to 1932 and three other schools had “1950s lighting” in them.

Board member Jennifer Dayton also expressed concerns, noting that millions of dollars in capital projects had been deferred in this current year’s budget because of BET cuts.

“This is not a one-year reduction, but rather a long-term plan to shrink capital resources to the schools,” Ms. Dayton said. “The Board of Education cannot continually defer capital projects and still meet our fiduciary responsibilities to the town. The majority of our projects are mandatory for a financial responsibility to protect existing assets and to insure a safe, healthy and effective learning environment.”

Ms. Dayton said she believes the community will be behind the upgrades to the facilities and that the board had heard many times from the Representative Town Meeting about the condition of Central Middle School, where it holds its meetings.

“These projects will benefit more than the public school system, it will benefit the community,” Ms. Dayton said.

Michael Mason, chairman of the BET, and Joseph Pellegrino, chairman of the Budget Committee, were both in attendance at the board meeting, but did not speak during the public hearing portion. Dr. McKersie did not directly address them either but did indicate that there might not be much wiggle room in spending on capital projects.

“In my conversations I’ve had since coming to this district, one of the major themes has been the quality of the facilities,” Dr. McKersie said. “Our current quality is based around about a $10-million investment per year. So if we’re not able to maintain a roughly $10-million funding, the vast majority of the people I’m talking with are going to start to be exceedingly disappointed in the quality of our facilities. This is a very rigorous analysis of where we are, budgetarily and otherwise, with our facilities. To the administration, it’s plain and simple… when we cut back on the roughly $10 million we’ve been spending, it’s going to significantly impact the quality of our facilities.”

None of the BET’s guidelines have been approved yet, though. Everything is in a preliminary discussion and Mr. Pellegrino, who could not be reached for comment by deadline for this week’s edition, had previously told the Post that the intention of his committee is not to overrule current capital improvement project processes but, rather, to ensure there is proper communication on all sides about what money there is to be spent and how it should be spent.

Mr. Pellegrino has said that there has to be a discussion about the town’s spending priorities, especially with so many major capital projects, including the music instructional space and auditorium (MISA) project at the high school. He has also said that he wants to hear from the public about what the spending priorities should be before any votes are made.

At last week’s meeting Board member Adriana Ospina also said “this might come down to a choice” for the town.

“What do we want to spend our money on and are we willing to have our kids go to school where they may trip in a bathroom or there might not be good enough lighting in certain places,” Ms. Ospina said. “It’s very important that we gather together as a community and decide what are our priorities for our students.”

The budget guidelines are expected to be voted upon at the BET’s Oct. 15 meeting.


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