Investment in digital learning centerpiece of new school budget

Stressing a commitment to bringing the Greenwich Public Schools more into the digital age through proactive, not reactive, steps, Superintendent of Schools William McKersie unveiled the proposed $143,151,602 budget for the 2013-14 school year.

The budget, which is the first for Dr. McKersie in Greenwich since he took over this summer, represents an increase of 2.7% over the current year. He called it a “big budget” but also a fiscally responsible one that takes into consideration the “tight fiscal environment” in town. Dr. McKersie said money was reallocated whenever possible to keep this a level services budget and that the main expenditure increase for this year is investment into digital learning that has been called for by students, parents, school administration, and the community.

Dr. McKersie said the investment was “very aggressive” to “transform over the next couple of years what teaching and learning is in the Greenwich Public Schools.” This would be done through a concerted effort into one-on-one learning with digital devices for all students and teachers. The investment would include the devices, software and applications as well as professional learning and two full-time positions for integration specialists.

“There is very strong evidence that digital learning improves academic achievement and that it prepares students for college and career,” Dr. McKersie said. “There is a debate about the effects of computer technology on what difference it makes in student test results. But there is no debate about it better preparing students. When you go into a workforce now and go into college now, you have to be digitally literate.”

There was limited board member comment at the meeting on the budget, with more extensive discussions to come. But there seemed to be acceptance of Dr. McKersie’s priorities. Board of Education member Steve Anderson praised the proactive investment in digital learning.

“As has frequently happened in education, we tend to be a lot more reactive, and I applaud the efforts to show us trying to get out front on the digital learning process,” Mr. Anderson said. “I look forward to a lot of good, rich very constructive discussion on that.”

Dr. McKersie said the budget also was an effort to “maximize resources at the school level,” and that will involve cuts in the central office staff. Dr. McKersie did not go into specifics about where and how the cuts would be applied, but did say they would amount to close to $245,000. The money being saved by the cuts would go toward adding the staff for the increased focus on digital learning. Dr. McKersie said this would create an additional $91,000 in savings to the town through lower benefit costs.

“I’ve already had this discussion in Havemeyer [with the staff] and we’re working through that,” Dr. McKersie said. “We will see how the discussion goes forward.”

Dr. McKersie said the board’s goals are at the center of the budget. Those goals include getting to scores on the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) that have 83% of third graders at goal level for reading by 2015 along with 87% of eighth grade students at goal in writing and 75% of eighth graders passing Algebra 1 in that same time frame.

“These targets have been very important in the planning,” Dr. McKersie said. “Students are at the heart of the matter, and as you build a budget you have to be reminded of that.”

He said Greenwich will maintain its current guidelines for class size and reminded parents that Greenwich “is working with an increasingly diverse population” over a big district with 16 facilities covering 1.5 million square feet.

“We are increasingly a district made up of families that don’t have English as their dominant language,” Dr. McKersie said. “That’s up to 18% of the district. There is a real success story here for Greenwich. As we have included many more people in our community and our schools that don’t have English as the first language, we’ve actually kept very consistent with the percentage of students that are English language learners (ELL). In many districts, you won’t see that success in helping students who don’t have English in their families as a first language take on English and move into the regular program.”

Dr. McKersie also noted that the district is now up to 13% of students on the free and reduced lunch program. He called it a “pretty fundamental point” in educational finance and building budgets that as the diversity of a population increases, the cost of educating it also increases. Dr. McKersie added that the diversity of the district extends to ability and special needs ranges, as special needs students made up 10% of the district, which he said was also driving costs.

As he has since taking over, Dr. McKersie rejected the notion that Greenwich is an underperforming district.

“We are a high-performing school district, but we are always striving to get better,” Dr. McKersie said. “We have to improve our rate of growth, but we have no evidence of declining scores. We are not below national and state averages. … The challenge is that we have to keep raising the bar and we have significant achievement gaps. We are doing that as an exceedingly high-performing district.”

Consideration of the budget now enters into an aggressive time frame. There is a public hearing scheduled before tonight’s meeting at 7 p.m. at North Street School where the budget can be discussed and there will be two meetings dedicated solely to the budget, Nov. 27 and Dec. 13 at 7 p.m. at Cos Cob School, where board members will bring their questions directly to Dr. McKersie and the public will be allowed to speak. However, all of this must happen in a little more than a month, since a vote on the budget is scheduled for Dec. 20 at 7 p.m. at Greenwich High School.

The snowstorm that hit Greenwich last week got things off to a slower than expected start, too, as not all board members were able to receive their budget books before the Nov. 8 meeting and the big X factor remains the lack of Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) guidelines. The guidelines, which are issued yearly by the board’s Budget Committee, are nonbinding but provide a clear picture of what the BET will and will not allow in terms of spending. Mr. Anderson said that putting together the budget without those guidelines, which were not completed in time, “worries me greatly.”

“I’m worried that if we come up with a number, everyone is going to use it as a piñata to cut from, because we don’t have BET guidelines,” Mr. Anderson said. “We need to re-establish working constructively together … instead of having all the departments working in silos.”

However, Dr. McKersie expressed confidence that the schedule was manageable and all concerns and changes could be addressed.

“There’s going to be a lot of debate and discussion, but we’re going to do this in a way that’s dignified and respectful,” Dr. McKersie said.

 

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