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Backlash to Greenwich budget reductions not likely to change decisions

Ken Borsuk, May 2, 2020, Greenwich Time Insider.

GREENWICH — As backlash intensifies toward the Board of Estimate and Taxation’s steep cuts in the proposed municipal budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year, the board’s leadership insists the cuts were the right move during a fiscal crisis caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

The BET this week reduced the proposed $459.8 million budget that its Budget Committee had endorsed before the pandemic hit by almost $12 million.

Large cuts were made to budget lines for planned capital projects and operating funds were rolled back to the levels in the current year’s budget.

The reductions were made across the board to all town departments, but it is the more than $3 million reduction to the Board of Education’s budget that has drawn the most fire.

“I knew it would be difficult,” BET Chair Michael Mason said of the cut. “I care about the children of this town more than you can ever imagine. I care about everyone in this town. My family goes back generations here. I would love the opportunity to explain the thoughts going into the budget with everyone I possibly could.”

Greenwich is making the same kinds of budget adjustments that have been made in other towns, with Greenwich’s reduction of 1.84 percent in the school budget less than the cuts made in New Canaan, Cheshire, West Hartford and Trumbull, he said.

“I am watching this every day, and I think you’re going to find Greenwich is probably reacting like other towns are acting,” Mason said. “Boards of Finance are going to have to say, ‘What are our options? Raise taxes, reduce spending or use cash.’ We did a little bit of each. I am unhappy to see all the unhappy parents.”

The school district’s proposed budget was reduced from $166.4 million, which the Budget Committee had endorsed in March, to $163.3 million. The cuts caused an outcry this past week, as parents and school board members were caught by surprise, saying there was not enough discussion on the matter.

Superintendent of Schools Toni Jones has said in a memo that a $3 million cut could have “sweeping impacts on staffing and programs” and that an estimated 30 teachers, support staff and administrative positions “would need to be eliminated.” Cuts might have to be applied across the board, the memo said, to programs including music, art, physical education, athletics, intramurals and others.

The cuts were passed by the BET in a strict party-line vote, 7-6 with Republican Chair Mason casting a second tie-breaking vote. Democrats on the board had favored a $700,000 cut to the school budget, along with other reductions to town departments.

Mason acknowledged the reductions were difficult, but had to be made in light of the expected impact of the coronavirus crisis.

Mason and others have insisted school cuts can be applied without direct impact on the classroom. He said Friday he is eager to work with the Board of Education to make that happen.

Republicans have insisted the reductions are not actually “cuts” to the budget, because funding would remain the same as this year. That argument has not held much weight with critics.

“Holding the schools operating budget flat with the current year cannot be characterized as anything but a cut,” Democratic BET member Leslie Moriarty said. “There are contractual obligations that increase the cost of doing business as well as identified needs that were a challenge to meet even with the proposed budget. Without proper funding at the start of the school year, the superintendent will have no choice but to reduce the level of service. She indicated that to the BET in a memo sent before the BET vote.”

Appropriations possible

The BET does have the option of adding an amendment to its budget vote, changing what was agreed to. The finance board does not have to deliver a budget to the RTM for final approval until May 5.

Moriarty said the Democratic caucus would support a reconsideration of the budget at a special meeting next week. But that is not likely to happen.

“I have nothing indicating to me that anyone would change their vote,” Mason said.

Mason and other Republicans said repeatedly during the budget vote that the door was open for supplemental appropriations to be made during the coming year. By that time, it was argued, that will be a clearer view of need and economic realities.

Democrats said that would not prevent service cuts.

“The possibility of interim appropriations will not avoid these structural changes since the superintendent is responsible for managing to an approved budget level,” Moriarty said. “Our children have already made many sacrifices this year and their academic growth is expected to fall short of typical expectations due to distance learning. The business of education will not be business as usual next year.”

Wanted poster

Board of Education Chair Peter Bernstein vowed this week the district would “look at every option” to keep the cuts from hitting the classroom, including working with the town’s labor unions. At the same time he urged, as parents have, for the BET to reconsider its decision.

“Please go back and continue discussions,” Bernstein said to the BET. “I think there’s middle ground to be found here. I really do.”

Board member Meghan Olsson called the cuts “devastating” and her sentiments were echoed by others on the board. Two board members, Vice Chair Kathleen Stowe and Karen Hirsh, took part in a drive-by protest of the cuts last weekend at Town Hall.

But there is not unanimity on the school board either. Board member Peter Sherr, a past chair, and some other members made similar arguments to Mason’s, that other towns and other school districts are making steeper cuts than Greenwich is.

“We need to be a little cool with the rhetoric,” Sherr said. “This is a time when cool heads are needed. Intelligent, thoughtful, calm leadership is needed.”

Sherr said he hopes the board the and public will “resist the temptation to slide into vilifying people and dragging in party politics” which he called “Washington-style” tactics.

He particularly noted a Facebook meme, done as an old “Wanted” poster, and featuring the names and faces of the six Republican members of the BET. It called on residents to “vote them out” and accused them of betraying Greenwich children with their decisions.

Town resident Lindsey Fahey, an education advocate, said she did not create the meme but has shared it because of her concern about the impact the cuts will have on students.

“I’ve seen and shared the wanted posters and think they express the anger and frustration of Greenwich parents across the political spectrum who don’t feel heard or adequately represented by the votes of the Republican members of the BET,” Fahey said. “This is a watershed moment in our town with thousands of voters and taxpayers protesting in various formats, all demanding that the BET comes back to the table and funds education.”

Editior’s Note: The article has been corrected to reflect the full name of Lindsey Fahey.

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