School budget cuts expected

A reduced school budget will be put on the table tonight as part of the budget discussion, but where the specific cuts will come from is still to be determined.

In an interview with the Post on Tuesday, Superintendent of Schools William McKersie said that the new budget will call for cuts in both district personnel and educational programs. But how and even if a cut is applied is unknown heading into tonight’s Board of Education budget discussion meeting at 7 p.m. in Cos Cob School. Dr. McKersie said the cut is only being discussed as an aggregate right now with the specifics waiting until the board makes its voice heard at tonight’s meeting.

Previously the board had been considering a $143 million budget for the 2013-14 school year. But in the time since that budget had first been introduced, the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) approved budget guidelines that call for a lower than historically approved mill rate increase and a cap on spending. To be able to meet those figures, the board would have to submit a budget with a two percent increase over last year as opposed to the larger figure on the table and the board asked the superintendent to prepare one as part of their budget discussions.

Dr. McKersie said to the Post that to make that two percent level, there would have to be an approximate $1.3 million cut in what has currently been proposed.

The BET guidelines were passed by a contentious 7-6 vote with all of the board’s six Republicans voting in favor of them and the six Democrats voting against them, forcing Chairman Michael Mason to cast a tiebreaking vote. The BET Republicans said that the strict guidelines are necessary given the slow economic recovery and the need to curb government spending to keep taxes low. Democrats, however, said this would lead to reduced services and personnel and is unnecessary given the town’s historically low and predictable mill rate increases.

The guidelines are not mandatory, though, and Dr. McKersie told the Post that it was possible the board might simply reject the proposed cuts as too harsh and ask him to either retain the original $143 million budget or submit one with less cuts. The BET’s Budget Committee does review the budget before it goes to the full body in March and does have the power to cut so guidelines have traditionally been followed.

Tonight’s meeting will determine how those cuts are applied or even if they’re applied at all. One thing Dr. McKersie pledged, though, is that the centerpiece of the proposed budget, which is an investment in digital learning, will not change. Despite the potential cuts, Dr. McKersie said that will remain the driving force of the budget and a major investment for the district. The initial investment in digital learning was likely going to result in reducing staff at Havemeyer, but these potential cuts could end up forcing the district to reduce headcount even further.

Board Chairman Leslie Moriarty told the Post that continuing with the digital learning investment is one of the board’s priorities even with the cuts. She said the board is looking for Dr. McKersie to not impact that along with the common core curriculum and other educational areas that are designed to improve student performance and increase multiple measures, such as not just teaching to standardized tests.

Ms. Moriarty said as of Tuesday the board had not yet reviewed the cuts. Dr. McKersie said more information was going to be presented on Wednesday, after deadline for this week’s edition of the Post.

“The parameters I’d like the superintendent to work around are to preserve the classroom environment and direct student impact as much as possible,” Ms. Moriarty said.

This is Dr. McKersie’s first budget in Greenwich and he admitted that this late adjustment has made it difficult, but pledged that the district would be able to move forward no matter what cuts are made to the budget.

“Anytime you have to go in and potentially have to redo things it’s difficult, especially when you have to now look at programs and personnel,” Dr. McKersie said. “You have to do it with great care and great sensitivity and be very, very mindful of how you’re doing it. This is something that’s especially important in a school system that has strong outcomes and areas to improve in.”

While the board has the final say so on the budget at this level, decisions about which personnel might be cut and how the program cuts are applied will be put forth by central office recommendations. Dr. McKersie said at tonight’s meeting he and the central office staff will be looking for the direction that the board wants to go in, whether they find the two percent budget workable or want him to submit something with more spending in it. Once that direction is clear, Dr. McKersie said he and his staff will be able to proceed from there.

The board is on a bit of a time crunch. Tonight’s meeting will be the first time any of these potential cuts will be discussed openly and the public will not have much time to respond to them before the board is scheduled to vote on the 2013-14 budget at its Dec. 20 meeting. Because tonight is the first time those cuts will even be discussed, Dr. McKersie will not be able to actually submit a budget with whatever changes are made until the Dec. 20 meeting, leaving a limited time frame for discussion.

But Dr. McKersie said it can be accomplished and the vote will be able to go on as scheduled.

“We will be able to provide the board with what it needs to be able to vote on the budget on the 20th,” Dr. McKersie said. “We are ready to be able to go in whichever the direction the board instructs us to go in.”

 

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