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Greenwich school board reacts to budget fury rolling through town

Jo Kroeker, May 1, 2020, Greenwich Time Insider

GREENWICH — Hundreds of residents tuned in for the Greenwich Board of Education meeting Thursday night to hear the board members’ responses to the cuts made in the budget proposal for the 2020-21 fiscal year.

The 283 people listening in to the meeting via ZOOM heard some members lament the devastating impact the cuts will have. But they heard others support colleagues on the Board of Estimate and Taxation for making hard decisions in financially uncertain times due to the coronavirus pandemic.

All members said they resolved to collaborate with the BET, and asked their colleagues to do the same. But the BET’s $3 million cut took the community by storm.

“This has caused a lot of consternation in the community,” said Board Chair Peter Bernstein, adding that the members of the BET and the BOE have received hundreds of emails.

The school district’s operating budget is $163.3 million this fiscal year. The budget endorsed by the BET Budget Committee totaled $166.4 million for 2020-21, but it was reduced back to $163.3 million by the full BET in the vote on Monday.

Bernstein asked the BET members listening in to meet again and discuss the issue with the BOE. “I’m not unwilling to help find that middle ground,” he said. “We’d like to have that opportunity.”

In a memo to the BET over the weekend, Superintendent Toni Jones outlined $728,000 in possible reductions, but she predicted cutting the $3 million would require reducing staff by 30.

Board Vice Chair Kathleen Stowe said she wanted to address parents who are saying things such as, “support academics over sports” — referencing classroom expenditures over the Cardinal Stadium project at Greenwich High School. But she pointed out that the stadium project is in the capital budget — the cuts were in the operating budget.

On Sunday, nearly 200 Greenwich parents honked their horns in protest of the planned cuts. On Monday, in a party-line vote, the BET approved a reduction of $3 million, returning next year’s school budget to this year’s level.

Jones said the district will know the final number by Monday. Until then, her administration will wait and see, she said, telling school board members that she will remain optimistic.

“We’re not going to leave any stone unturned,” she said. “It will be a challenge. We’ll do everything we can.”

For the remainder of this fiscal year, the school district will cover its costs, largely because of the coronavirus closures. The school district no longer has to pursue an interim appropriation to close this year’s budget holes. An interim $1.2 million appropriation that was requested — and then put on hold — would have covered overages in special education, custodial overtime for the increased sanitizing work before the schools closed, as well as money to cover the rent for the scaffolding shoring up the bleachers at Greenwich High School.

The world has changed a lot since the board voted to send the appropriation to the BET, Greenwich Schools Chief Operating Officer Sean O’Keefe said. The vote was deferred to May, and in the meantime, O’Keefe said he has found savings, because of the cuts for substitute teachers, utilities and supplies during the school closure. A significant portion of the savings will come from transportation , but the district is still negotiating with the bus company, he said.

“I feel very, very comfortable saying we have enough that we should not proceed with the interim (appropriation),” O’Keefe said.

Board member Christina Downey thanked Jones and O’Keefe for their quick response and good work number-crunching. “We really appreciate the effort the two of you have put in,” she said. But she said she was frustrated and disappointed that the board was not advised of the potential cuts until after the final public hearing on April 20.

“As a result, we were not able to have meaningful input that may have minimized the cuts which they voted on the budget,” she said. “I would have appreciated a dialogue, rather than a one-sided conversation.” Taxpayers were also denied their voices, Downey said.

“I applaud all those tax payers who will now be engaged in our processes going forward,” she said.

BOE member Karen Kowalski said that calling the reductions “devastating” is unfair and short-sighted. “We are in trying times,” she said. “Our budget is flat ... and our teachers and administration managed to provide a stellar, a gold-standard education, in 2019-2020 on the same budget.”

Greenwich’s budget has been less impacted than other towns because it has been fiscally responsible in years past, she said. “We as a community actually did not decide fiscal responsibility is of the most importance here — six Republican members of the BET decided that,” member Meghan Olsson said. She said the board needs to look to Jones and O’Keefe, and to reread Jones’ memo as well as the BET’s response.

Board member Peter Sherr said he is thankful that Greenwich is not making deeper cuts — like other towns may be forced to do. He said he is glad that members are pledging to collaborate with the BET, saying that recently, the relationship turned adversarial.

He also said discourse took an ugly turn, with a wanted poster picturing the Republican BET members on Facebook. “A wanted poster, in Greenwich, Connecticut,” he said. He compared it to the heat some BOE members took after voting for the later start time at Greenwich High School a few years ago. Sherr and former board member Gaetane Francis, a Republican and a Democrat, had tactical targets plastered onto their heads.

Like Downey, Bernstein denounced that BOE had no opportunity to provide public input before the cuts approved. While he liked seeing parents advocate for their schools, he asked parents to follow the norms that are expected of their children, “to care for self and others” and to “let go and move on.”

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