School board considers new budget items
GREENWICH — As one of their first tasks of the new school year, school officials have begun putting together a list of items they would like to include in next year’s budget.
Among the $1.4 million in items the school board discussed this week were a $500,000 review of the district’s special education program, a $265,000 review of the district’s plan to address state-mandated racial balance, new administrative staff, a new custodian at New Lebanon School and new learning facilitators to help kindergarten through third-grade teachers in early literacy, writing, social studies and other subjects.
“While we’re mindful of budget pressures that exist, we also want to be able to provide an opportunity to review these new initiatives or budgetary requests,” said Lorianne O’Donnell, the district’s chief operating officer.
The requests include several new hires. Board of Education members this week expressed concern about adding staff, which would counter stated priorities of the Board of Estimate and Taxation and Representative Town Meeting.
“That’s something that’s always going to bite us,” said school board member Lauren Rabin. “The bottom line is if we have more heads in this budget than we have in the one we just started that gets people concerned.”
O’Donnell said the district would look for efficiencies and offsets for anything added into the budget. She also stressed it is early in the process and the list of requests could change.
“We need to get feedback from you,” O’Donnell told the board at its meeting Thursday. “We do need to hear what you’re supportive of and may not be supportive of so we can build a budget that we can recommend to you.”
The BET’s Budget Committee will set budget guidelines for all town departments in the fall. While the guidelines are non-binding, they do provide a view of what finance officials will accept.
BET Budget Committee Chair Leslie Moriarty could not be reached for comment on Friday.
The potential review of the district’s special education program received a lot of attention at Thursday’s meeting. Mary Forde, the district’s chief pupil personnel officer, said her department wants to perform a “soup to nuts review” that would look at all aspects of the program.
Several board members said they want a clear sense of goals and priorities for the review before it can be approved and money allocated.
Another request that came up for discussion was $100,000 for an “Educational Wellness Center.” Forde said the idea emerged from a committee looking at Greenwich High School student mental health issues, particularly around risk assessments.
“The thought was to coordinate a series of supports that would include both academic and mental health supports,” Forde said. “It would fold in Effective School Solutions, which is our contracted service with clinical social workers, and provide something between the house-based basic wellness supports and the higher level supports. It’s kind of a middle ground for kids who are experiencing distress or anxiety.”
The program would require physical space and possibly an additional psychologist or social worker.
Board Secretary Barbara O’Neill said she preferred to look at existing programs to see if they are still fulfilling their function the way they should be.
Forde said the committee would do an examination of existing services during the upcoming school year.
Questions were also raised about the racial balance plan evaluation. Board member Gaetane Francis said it had been her understanding a review would wait until after the new building for New Lebanon School opened. The new school’s additional space is intended, in part, to enable the school’s magnet program to attract enough students to bring the school into compliance with the state’s racial balance law.
“I feel like it’s a little early to do (the review),” Francis said. “I think we need to give that a little bit of time.”
Board member Peter Sherr also offered skepticism of the review.
“We don’t have a demand from the state this year,” Sherr said. “We have no idea if we will have a demand from the state next year. It’s speculation based upon who’s the (state education) commissioner and God knows who the commissioner will be after the election. … It seems the crystal ball is murky.”
O’Neill said she wanted to see more requests from the building level, not district administration, in the list and said she felt one area continued to not be addressed.
“I was surprised and disappointed again, as I have been for seven years, to not see social workers for elementary school students on this list,” O’Neill said. “We desperately need social workers. Whatever we need to do to get them, we need to do it. … If we don’t get these problems when they’re small and with younger kids, they only grow bigger. We really need to focus on doing something very serious about this issue.”