School budget approved, board members warn against further cuts

To meet approved guidelines, the Board of Education approved a reduced school budget for 2013-14 at its final meeting of 2012.

But it also had a message for the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) that this was as far as it was willing to go.

Initially, Superintendent of Schools William McKersie had proposed a $143-million budget for 2013-14 with a new emphasis on digital learning for the district. However, after that was proposed the BET approved budget guidelines calling for limits on town spending and a smaller-than-expected mill rate increase. While those guidelines are not mandatory, the BET has the power to cut the school budget. So the board decided to approve a reduced budget of $142,990,644, which is only a 1.97% increase over last year’s budget.

Areas where the cuts are coming from are not specifically known yet, but Dr. McKersie stressed before the board’s vote on Dec. 20 that they would not have direct classroom impact. They are expected, however, to involve reductions in expenses for the district’s central office, with possible staff reductions.

“We have protected the classroom as best as possible,” Board of Education Chairman Leslie Moriarty said. “We’re talking about a reorganization at central office and two revisions in professional development and math, where it looks like we were buying some materials we might already own.”

Ms. Moriarty said the specifics of where the cuts will come are expected “in the next few weeks.” Dr. McKersie had previously said that the decisions would wait until after Jan. 1.

In approving the more than $1.5 million in cuts overall, the board made clear that it did not want the BET coming back to it with requests for further reductions. The BET’s budget committee will begin its deliberations in February, and then in March the full BET will get its say. There has been a visible split on the finance board over spending caps and the mill rate, with the six Republicans saying that the slow economic recovery means austerity measures are necessary and the six Democrats calling for traditional levels of spending and taxes to continue so that town staffing and services don’t have to be reduced. For the budget guidelines, Republican BET Chairman Michael Mason had to cast the deciding seventh vote to break a tie.

Board member Adriana Ospina said she wanted to make it clear to the rest of the town that just because Dr. McKersie was able to introduce a reduced budget it didn’t mean it wasn’t a hardship and that there won’t be an impact on education and Greenwich’s students.

“Sacrifices are going to have to be made,” Ms. Ospina said. “I think we are at our bare minimum, and the fact that we can cut it doesn’t mean we have extra money lying around. We have to make tough decisions and we’re doing without certain things. We asked the administration to have this not affect the classroom and the classroom teacher, but that doesn’t mean other things won’t be affected. It’s very important that we keep that in mind. By no means should anyone say that this was easily done and that they could even look further.”

Those sentiments were shared by several of her colleagues.

“The public should know that the reductions in our budget did not impact the daily excellence of student learning in the classrooms,” board member Jennifer Dayton said. “Nor did the reductions impact our ability to invest for the future with the move to higher content standards and personalized instruction in digital learning. The BET should know that conversations about efficiencies from a central office reorganization did not emanate from BET guidelines but rather from earlier discussions with our superintendent. Unfortunately, the scale of the town’s budget management problem required more immediate reductions. This board has done its part to be part of the solution to the town’s operating budget problem, just as we have been part of the solution on labor contracts. … Decision-makers should keep in mind that excellence in any organization derives from morale. Further reductions would come with a heavy cost to morale and parent satisfaction.”

Board member Nancy Kail said the original budget Dr. McKersie had submitted was “very responsible,” given the economic conditions and the contractual obligations the district faces. She said the reduced budget “still enables us to achieve our goals and promote excellence among our students and protects our investments in technology that we still certainly want to make.” Ms. Kail said she “implored” the BET and First Selectman Peter Tesei to support the budget as well.

Board Vice Chairman Barbara O’Neil said the board needed to “hold firm” on this budget level and not allow for any further cuts.

 

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