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The Mother Lode: With school budget cuts in Greenwich, it never rains — it pours

Claire Tisne Haft, April 29, 2020, Greenwich Time Insider.


Why all the fuss, Greenwich?


Something to do with the BET upsetting the BOE, infuriating the RTM (who seriously need a new ATM), making the GPS need a new GPS for the PGC agenda on the BOE meeting (especially due to the costly PPT — driven by IEPs), which is all connected to the CDC (infiltrated by the KGB?), blaming the FDA, who made the CEOs take the heat for the IGG, IGN and LGA antibody test (a move closely followed by the IRS), so as not to be Trump’s next EOA (or DOE) — (who the FBI most likely tied to the NRA), which the BND probably knew about all along, as did the BBC and the CIA, so WTF.


But for now, let’s stay local.


“Can someone please just tell me what the hell the BET is — and why they are so mean?!” my friend hollered from 6 feet away.


“It’s like all these rich Republicans who don’t have kids in school,” a friend said, “so they don’t care about the public school system.”


To backtrack: The Greenwich BET (or Board of Estimate and Taxation) met on Monday via “a Zoom call from hell.” After “the most contentious BET meeting ever,” they voted along party lines on how best to address budget cuts in response to the coronavirus. All six BET Republicans voted for a $3 million cut in education, while all six Democrats voted against it.


Because the Republicans hold the chair, they broke the tie — and made a lot of Greenwich moms seriously upset. These are moms who had already honked the hell out of their minivans in the driving rain in front of Town Hall on Sunday “to warn them that they’d better not mess with Greenwich schools,” as my friend put it. But it didn’t work.


“OK, so what the hell is going on?” I texted my friend Kim, who knows everything.


I wanted to understand how a town like Greenwich could end up telling Connecticut’s 2019 Middle School Principal of the Year, Gordon Beinstein, that one of the wealthiest towns in America couldn’t afford to fix the toxic athletic fields that had been closed for four years at Western Middle School — a school that teaches some of Greenwich’s poorest kids.


“Call Jeff Ramer,” Kim told me. “He knows everything.”


So, having no idea who he is, I called Jeff Ramer.


“I write a column for Greenwich Time, and listen, I really don’t want to get into the details with budgets and numbers and all of that — what I need is a sound bite for my readership, who are mostly stressed-out parents,” I told him.


“Hmmm,” he said.


“Didn’t, like, the BET just cut money for our schools because they are, like, a group of old, rich people who don’t care about public education because they don’t have school-age children?” I asked.


“Well,” he laughed. “You got me on the old part.”


When Ramer explained that he was a member of the BET, I felt like the world’s biggest “covidiot.”


“Right,” I said, like a moron. “I’m sorry … I have three kids at home, and frankly, I’m going nuts.”


My 11-year-old had just informed me that an asteroid wearing a facemask was headed toward Earth, while my 10-year-old made a TikTok of my husband waking up to a rap song called “Savage.”


Ramer explained calmly that there was no way to “sound bite” the budget cuts, while my husband was informed (by my daughter) that a video of him getting out of bed had just gone viral.


But once Ramer started going into the complexity of what had gone down, I was hooked. That asteroid had nothing on the BET drama.


“Yeah … it was quite a meeting,” Ramer told me.


BET members were frantically and covertly texting each other from their “Brady Bunch”-like Zoom squares as snide comments and threats flew, while a record number of town residents watched from their homes.


“Usually we get, I don’t know, maybe 20 to 50 people at best at Town Hall,” Ramer told me. “At the high point of the Zoom call, I think we were at something like 280 people watching.”


OK, given the fact that I am already 200 words over my limit, I am going to have to sound bite from here for you. Forgive the oversimplification — and you may already know all of this — but I really want you to get this, because it truly blew my mind.


The BET is not a group of old, rich, white men who don’t care about our public schools. Women outnumber men by one, and many BET members have fought hard for public schools, among them Leslie Moriarty and Laura Erickson, both of whom are former Board of Education chairs.


The way the BET works is: every two years, we vote for six Democrats and six Republicans, and the party with the most aggregate votes wins the BET chairmanship, and therefore basically runs the show.


Simply put, if more Democrats come out to vote for the BET, even though its membership will be equally split, the Democrats will gain BET control by taking over the BET chair — and vice versa. The moral is: vote along party lines for the BET, and know that no matter who is elected, your vote really, really matters.


The Democrats took the BET chair for the first time in Greenwich history in 2017 — by a mere 400 votes. But in 2019, Republicans took it back. This means that whenever there is a tie vote of 6-6, the chair weighs in and swings the outcome — they call it a 7-6 vote.


So this week, the BET had a tie vote of 6-6 on a budget cut to offset the losses they expect due to the coronavirus.


Republican Chair Michael Mason cast the deciding vote, and the town operating budget was cut by $5.9 million. Of those cuts, $3 million will come out of our schools.


What will this mean? Rumors abound. Less teachers, less books, less special programs like ALP, less facilities, less overall schools? That’s for the BOE to decide.


But the coronavirus has already had a massive impact on our kids’ educations, and — just when our kids need it most — our town hammers our schools.


By contrast, the BET Democrats proposed cutting the school budget by roughly $700,000 — or much, much less. Like $2.3 million less.


It gets worse. Our town has a “fund balance” (as in “money leftover,” like a rainy-day fund) of over $63 million.


“YOU HAVE TO BE KIDDING ME,” I hollered into the phone.


“Well, now remember, town policy is to hold on to 5 percent to 10 percent as a reserve,” Ramer countered.


But here’s the kicker: Greenwich is holding 14 percent in reserve, way more than its policy.

And actually the BET will dip into the “rainy day” fund — but that is to keep our mill rate low (which affects how much property taxes we pay). Greenwich will use $15 million of its $63 million rainy day savings to do so. Likewise, we will take $4.1 million of our saved-up money to help Nathaniel Witherell to get out of its mess.


That still leaves $44 million of leftover, EXTRA and unused money. With the current Republican cuts, our mill rate will go down — which means our property taxes will be lower — and a lot of people care a whole lot about that.


But the BET Democrats’ leaner, proposed school cuts (as in $2.3 million leaner) would STILL leave us with a low mill rate — a difference of less than 1 mill, or 0.1 percent. Our property taxes would hardly be touched! And this is in a town that ALREADY has some of the lowest property taxes going.


And so, on a VERY rainy day, when a whole lot of saved up money was about to be used to help Greenwich in a time of crisis, parents drove around in their cars honking. Take money from our schools, Greenwich? Are you serious? And as we passed each other in our isolation, I never felt more united.


But in the end, the honking was of no use. So while our kids sit at home confused and struggling, our town decided to slash the one thing that can make it better: education.

Talk about a rainy day.


Claire Tisne Haft is a former publishing and film executive, raising her family in Greenwich while working on a freelance basis on books and films. She can be reached through her website at clairetisnehaft.com.

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