Budget discussed, Moriarty re-elected as board chair

In the end, the fight over who will lead the Board of Education for the next year was hardly a bang. It barely even qualified as a whimper.

By a unanimous vote, Leslie Moriarty was re-elected Tuesday night to a second yearlong term as chairman without any opponent being named against her. Previously it had seemed as though Ms. Moriarty, a Democrat, would be challenged by board Vice Chairman Barbara O’Neill, a Republican, but Ms. O’Neill’s name was never formally put up for election and she ultimately voted for Ms. Moriarty. Ms. O’Neill was, however, unanimously elected to another term as vice chairman, as was Democrat Adriana Ospina as board secretary.

Traditionally, chairmen of the Board of Education have been Republicans. When Ms. Moriarty was first elected as chair last year, following a contentious 5-3 vote where Republican Peter Sherr switched from abstaining to supporting her in order to get the needed five-vote margin, it was the first time in decades a Democrat held the position. At the time, the thinking was that Ms. Moriarty would hold the position for two years until after the 2013 election, in which four seats, including her own, would be up for re-election.

But earlier this month it appeared Republicans would look to change that, setting up a potential scenario where the four Democratic board members would vote for Ms. Moriarty and the four Republicans would vote for Ms. O’Neill, deadlocking the vote and giving the members 30 days to reach an agreement on leadership before the Board of Selectmen would have to step in. When the vote was scheduled to be taken, though, on Nov. 15, the board instead postponed it until Tuesday, at which time Ms. O’Neill was not nominated.

Earlier this month, Republican board member Peter von Braun told the Post he did not think that Ms. Moriarty was doing a bad job, but that he and his Republican colleagues had been told that with Republican leadership of the board, district priorities in the new school budget would “go much more smoothly.” At Tuesday’s meeting, Republican board member Steve Anderson, who had been chairman until last year when Ms. Moriarty won the vote, said the party was not seeking a partisan fight but had been looking to keep the tradition of the party that got the most votes being able to pick the chairman.

“For 30 years both Republicans and Democrats had respected the will of the Greenwich voter and allowed the party that won at the ballot box to nominate the chair,” Mr. Anderson said in a prepared statement before the vote took place. “Each Republican member of this board received thousands of votes more than any Democratic member of the board. It is not playing politics to acknowledge these votes and the expression of popular will they represent, and it is not ‘purely partisan’ to recognize that Republicans and Democrats have many fundamental differences in priorities and policies.”

Mr. Anderson added, “At the same time, the Republican Board of Ed members are keenly aware of how important it is that the board’s focus be on our 9,000 students, the continuous improvement of our high-performing school district and the successful launch, growth and long-term retention of Superintendent Dr. Bill McKersie. To prevent our being distracted from these fundamental goals, we four Republicans have decided, with the support of our party leadership, that the continuity and stability of the Board of Ed leadership are the best thing for our children and the school system this year.”

Greenwich Republican Town Committee Chairman Jim Campbell said he felt the statement spoke for itself and that the party had “high hopes” that the board can accomplish its goals. Democratic Town Committee Chairman Frank Farricker told the Post that Ms. Moriarty, over seven years on the board, had proven herself to be a “bipartisan success.”

“I am gratified that the Republican Board of Education members put aside their partisan instincts and chose to support the continued chairmanship of Leslie Moriarty for another year,” Mr. Farricker said. “It is clear that after a contentious election last year, there is a bipartisan wish that the kids, and not the politics, come first.”

In brief comments after she was re-elected, Ms. Moriarty thanked her colleagues for their support and said she was “looking forward to working collaboratively in addressing our challenges and celebrating our successes.”

“I always keep the children’s interest foremost in every decision and every action I take, and I know the rest of you do that as well,” Ms. Moriarty told her colleagues.

Ms. O’Neill did not speak when offered the chance after being re-elected as vice chairman.

With the election of officers taken care of, the board set to work on further developing Dr. McKersie’s proposed $143-million school budget. The budget is scheduled to be voted on Dec. 20, but with the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) having approved guidelines for town budgets only last week, after the school budget was first unveiled, there is confusion about what actions need to be taken. This budget represents a 2.7% increase over last year, mostly because of contractual salary and benefit costs, but it also includes the beginning of a new emphasis from the district on digital learning.

Board members have indicated support for Dr. McKersie’s initiatives but also asked at Tuesday’s meeting what, if any, cuts might have to be made in order to get BET approval. The BET’s guidelines are not mandatory, but since that board has the power to cut, the guidelines are seen as meaningful indications of what the board is and isn’t willing to approve. The BET’s guidelines, which were approved by a 7-6 vote after Chairman Michael Mason cast the tiebreaking vote, have called for closer to 2% growth in the town’s mill rate, which effectively demands either no growth or budget cuts from town departments.

“We have to be aware of what’s going on in the town around us, but we also have to be aware of what the needs are within the school,” said Ms. Moriarty.

The Board of Education is next expected to discuss the budget at a special Dec. 13 meeting, and board members said they would be looking for more specifics about what numbers had to be hit. Ms. Moriarty said initially it was her understanding that the board would be able to raise the budget only 1.9% over last year as opposed to the 2.7% called for in the proposal. However, others said it was closer to zero percent growth based on their analysis of the guidelines as they relate to the school budget.

Mr. Mason was on hand for the meeting as liaison from the BET to the Board of Education, and spoke briefly. He said he did not have specifics about how much growth there could be in the school budget because he did not view it as a separate entity but rather part of the entire consolidated budget that is scheduled to be unveiled by First Selectman Peter Tesei in February.

Ms. Moriarty said because a specific number wasn’t going to be offered, it was up to the board to come up with an understanding of the guidelines as part of the budget deliberations, which continue at the Dec. 13 meeting. The administration is expected to have more specific information at that time.

 

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