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2019-20 Schools cut $1.4M from budget

December 22, 2018

GREENWICH — The Greenwich Board of Education sliced more than $1.4 million from the school budget before approving the spending plan for the 2019-20 school year. But the board has not yet decided where those cuts will be made.

The cut was less than 1 percent of the approved operating budget of $163,364,193 for the next school year. The original plan had called for $164,774,196 in spending.

In approving the budget at a meeting Thursday night, school administrators and school board members pledged to focus carefully on those cuts in the coming weeks and months.

Although the reduction will not result in larger elementary school classroom sizes or a reduction in middle school intramural sports, there is likely to be a classroom impact.

Interim Superintendent of Schools Ralph Mayo has said he was “extremely uncomfortable” with the cut. Several areas could face cuts under the budget knife, including special education support staff and conferences and professional development for teachers. There could also be an increase in middle school class sizes, fewer courses at the high school and new textbooks purchases could be deferred.

Board of Education Chair Peter Bernstein said the board would evaluate the district’s spending and programs; money could be moved around in the budget to address areas of need and make sure students feel as little impact as possible.

“If we have to move money around we have the ability to do that,” Bernstein said. “Obviously we’re starting from a smaller pool, but there is some opportunity to do that. We see these budget transfers on a monthly basis.”

Board Secretary Barbara O’Neill said she wanted to make sure administrators have good data to back up any decisions made on cuts.

“It would make it easier for everybody if we had a true evaluation of those programs and that we could make a decision on data on what’s really working in professional development,” O’Neill said. “Of all the programs we have, what’s having the most impact and how do we know that through data?”

The board also needs more information about curriculum development, the strategic plan and the use of instructional coaches, she said.

“Once we have data we will be able to look at the budget in a much more insightful and thoughtful way and make the cuts based on data,” O’Neill said. She described the cuts as manageable but said she wanted to make them with certainty.

District Chief Academic Officer Irene Parisi said analysis was still taking place as the district takes the opportunity to evaluate spending and program effectiveness in all areas for potential cuts. For example, the district could look at new ways of providing teachers with professional learning and different delivery methods, including online opportunities, she said.

The district is also conducting program studies that could find more efficiencies and cost savings.

Board Vice Chair Jennifer Dayton wanted to know more about the cut’s impact on the district’s pilot program for personalized learning at the elementary schools. Parisi pledged the program would go forward.

“We are committed to making learning personal for all of our learners, and we will make that happen,” Parisi said. “The road map we presented at the beginning of the school year will remain. Will we make some small adjustments? Sure but that’s our commitment and our promise and we will continue to do that.”

The budget was ultimately approved by a 7-1 vote, with board with member Peter Sherr as the lone dissenting vote. Sherr said he was opposed to the budget and initially tried to move forward the original budget, but there was no other support for it.

“I will not support a budget that directly impacts the number of teachers in classrooms in any level of the system and that directly impacts the courses that we offer,” he said. “This plan here absolutely violates that principle. We will be cutting teacher positions by doing this and you can’t dispute it.”

Bernstein said he understood Sherr’s concerns.

“This is a cut budget, there’s no mistaking that,” Bernstein said. “We have tried to minimize the impact in the direction to the administration and they have done a lot of work. Is that work done? No, I don’t think so by any means.”

The budget was also approved over the objections of Carol Sutton, head of the Greenwich Education Association, the teachers’ union.

“The proposed cuts basically pull the rug out from under professional development and curriculum development theoretically for a year,” Sutton said. “The reality is all cuts hurt. … Imagine Greenwich Public Schools as a tree. Whether you starve the roots, strip the bark or hard prune limbs you damage the tree, and it takes several seasons for a tree that’s weakened to recover.”

Later in the meeting, board member Kathleen Stowe said it was important to focus on the positives of the budget.

“This is actually still a $3 million increase year-to-year, and if nothing else it’s a 3.6 percent increase for our teachers,” Stowe said. “To me, we’re investing most then in the people who have the most impact on our children. That’s where I want to put my money.”

Ultimately, the debate before the Board of Education was limited, and there was little public comment about the cuts. The revised budget of $163,364,193 is below the Board of Estimate and Taxation’s budget guideline that calls for no town budget to come in at more than 2 percent growth over the current year. The BET is looking to limit what is expected to be a tax increase for 2019-20.

Several members of the BET attended Thursday’s meeting but did not comment.

With the approval, the school budget moves to First Selectman Peter Tesei, who will present it on Jan. 24 as part of his 2019-20 municipal budget. The BET’s Budget Committee will then begin its budget hearings, including a full day of meetings with the Board of Education on Jan 31.

kborsuk@greenwichtime.com

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