School budget vote tonight, cuts likely to be made

The Board of Education is set to vote tonight on the 2013-14 budget, with more than a million dollars in cuts expected to bring it into line with finance board guidelines.

The board’s meeting will be at 7 p.m. at Greenwich High School, with the budget vote dominating the agenda. Superintendent of Schools William McKersie had previously submitted a $143-million budget for the next school year with an enhanced investment in digital learning as its centerpiece. But after the Board of Education and Taxation (BET) approved, by a contentious 7-6 vote, budget guidelines for the town calling for a lower-than-usual mill rate increase and a cap on municipal spending, Dr. McKersie had to go back and make cuts. At a budget meeting on Dec. 13, he told the board that he would find the approximately $1 million needed to get the budget in line with BET guidelines through reorganization and potential staff reductions at the district’s central office administration and staff to keep those cuts from directly impacting classroom education or resources.

In unveiling these cuts, Dr. McKersie said there would be a general reduction of $712,000 to central office and school support, $214,270 in program budget reductions and a $228,500 reduction to the review of the district’s math curriculum, which Dr. McKersie said remains a “top priority” for the district. He added that there would be “minimal, minimal, minimal impact at the school level” and that there would be “almost no” personnel changes in the individual schools. There could also be additional savings through staff reductions because the district would have to pay less for health and benefits.

Dr. McKersie said all staff and PTA leaders have been informed about the “broad strokes” of the reductions but they remain “a work in progress.” He said the district administration was “deep into this” work, and that while specifics of where the cuts would be applied were not available, they would be done with “guiding principles” in mind.

“We have been seeking solutions that will advance our shared mission of providing Greenwich students with the best educational experience possible in a constrained financial environment and, while operating in that environment, still have the Greenwich Public Schools operate as a model for the nation,” Dr. McKersie said. “We are not going to let fiscal constraints get in our way of still pushing for excellence.”

Dr. McKersie pledged to try “as best we can to treat personnel with dignity and compassion.” He said personnel and unions are being kept in the discussions so they will be informed about what is happening. While he called the potential cuts “painful,” he added that this was also being seen as a chance to “reorganize” the central office and make sure it is working as efficiently as possible with schools to meet the district’s priorities. The full view of what is going to be cut and where, if approved, is not expected to be unveiled until January.

“We’ve asked people not to let rumors move along and not to start rumors,” Dr. McKersie said. “If you hear something that seems like a rumor, find someone to check it with, because we want to be open, accurate and clear throughout this process.”

The cuts, if approved, would get the school budget down to only a 2% increase in spending over the current year’s budget and would bring it into line with the BET’s vision. The BET showed a visible even split over the spending reductions, with Republicans all voting in favor of it and Democrats all voting against it. BET Chairman Michael Mason cast the tiebreaking vote on the guidelines, but discussions of spending levels and the town’s mill rate are expected to continue next year, when First Selectman Peter Tesei unveils his proposed municipal budget and the finance board begins its deliberations on it.

The Board of Education had asked Dr. McKersie to put together a budget with only the 2% growth so it could be considered as part of the deliberations. The only boundary given to him on cuts was to “minimize” direct student and classroom impact. The original school budget had already called for a $245,000 reduction in central office staff to offset the costs of educational programs like the investment in digital learning. Now those cuts will have to be greater if the school board votes in favor of the budget, as it is expected to.

While the BET’s guidelines are not mandatory, it is likely they will be followed. All department budgets, including the Board of Education’s, need to first be approved by the BET’s Budget Committee in February before going before the full board in March. Both the Budget Committee and the full board have the power to make cuts to department budgets, so if the school board does not make those reductions in line with the guidelines, the BET could end up making them for the board. Ultimately the budget is voted upon by the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) in May. The RTM also has the power to cut and, unlike the BET, does not have the power to add items back in.

Board member Peter Sherr wondered if there were alternative areas to find cuts in, and that discussion is expected to continue at tonight’s meeting before the vote.

“I don’t like these choices,” Mr. Sherr said. “I don’t think anyone likes these choices, and I can’t help but think we’d be better off if we didn’t concentrate all our savings in one area.”

Board member Nancy Kail said the board has been willing to help the town close deficits in the past, but worried there would be a point when it would be too much.

“Time and time again we keep being asked to do more with less, and you get to a point when you can’t create a five-star meal with stone soup ingredients,” Ms. Kail said. “At a time when we’re being asked to comply with state mandates, institute common core standards and make major changes that are coming down from above, we have to make sure this budget does that in a satisfactory way. We also have to make sure we don’t compromise the major investment we’re making in technology.”

Lisa Beth Savitz, president of the Greenwich PTA Council, urged the board to hold true to the originally proposed budget and not make budget cuts. She said parents have spoken out against “embarrassingly shoddy facilities” and having too many children assigned to classrooms. She said they fear cuts will result in more of that. She warned against “making an unfair system worse.”

“The best trained educator with a brilliant lesson plan fights an uphill battle to instill a love of learning when there is not enough time to address each pupil’s unique needs,” Ms. Savitz said. “The most dedicated custodian cannot hope to bring sparkle to a 60-year-old facility. We need to support our staff, not undermine them. The solution to the current fiscal dilemma should not be shifting more of the burden onto families. Already those who can afford it shoulder a disproportionate amount of the costs through donations, volunteering and supplementing their children’s education with a wide expanse of private services. Those who cannot afford it are already at a disadvantage.”


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