Greenwich CT is often synonymous with gilded mansions, finance magnates, sprawling estates and soon: decrepit and failing schools.
On April 27, the Republican-led Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) voted along party lines to cut $3M from the Board of Education’s (BOE) Operating Budget and $24M of $35M from its Capital Budget in a draconian and unprecedented move, supposedly motivated by the economic effects of COVID. Let’s start with the Operating budget cut, but first, a quick backstory on how Greenwich funds our public schools.
Beginning in FY2012, the BET (which is essentially our town’s Finance Board) set strict guidelines on expenditures for all town departments, including our schools. No town department may increase their budget by more than 2%. Whereas other town departments can easily accommodate this guideline, it is impossible for our schools to do so, as our contractual salary increases and fixed costs are easily well over 2% and usually hovering at around 3% year to year. Perhaps this is why no other public school in lower Fairfield County has such self-imposed budgetary constraints. Rather, our peer towns exercise flexibility and practicality with their BOE budgets. After 9+ years of these constraints, it comes as no surprise that Greenwich’s contractual obligations and fixed costs have ballooned to around 90% of our Operating Budget.
Fast forward to April 27, 2020. After the public comment period had ended and without any consideration or review by the BOE and Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones, the BET Republicans slashed the Operating Budget from $166M to $163M – despite acknowledging a shortfall in Special Education outplacements of $1.5M, for a net deficit of $4.5M. On May 5, in an astonishing display of callous indifference, BET Republicans abruptly canceled a reconsideration meeting citing a Roberts Rules technicality. Much to the dismay of 1400 Greenwich residents who emailed the BET, 150 families who participated in a car protest at Town Hall and almost 3000 petition signers who urged the BET to fund our public schools, this singular cut, which affects 9000 students, 1000 teachers and tens of thousands of Greenwich Public School (GPS) parents, had been made unilaterally by 6 Republican members of the BET.
It bears mentioning that, while the BET acted along party lines, the public stood in bipartisan solidarity with our schools. Many Republicans, Democrats and Unaffiliated residents alike decried this cut which “would have lasting consequences for our students, felt well beyond the immediate school year.”
The next few weeks were a flurry of BOE meetings with Dr. Jones and COO Sean O’Keefe scrambling to close the $4.5M budget gap. At one point, 17 FT staff were targeted for “workforce reduction” as well as many more as yet determined to close the gap. Among the other cuts on the table were plans to furlough teachers for a day and/or revert back to original start times.
Fortunately, on June 23rd, Mr. O’Keefe came back to the BOE with some good news at the 11th hour. Indeed, timing was of the essence, as teacher renewal contracts were due June 30th. Due to the COVID school closures, Mr. O’Keefe was able to negotiate the terms of the remainder of our bus contract and in doing so, secured $2.1M back from the bus company. We slid under a lucky star with Mr. O’Keefe’s fortuitous savings as well as some clever accounting ($1.8M in encumbrances) and were able to dodge the $3M deficit with minimal layoffs. Of course, this ONE-OFF windfall does NOT address any COVID related expenses should schools re-open in the fall. Nor does it address the remaining $1.5M Special Education exposure. Those must be addressed via interim appropriations, which are still subject to approval by the BET and RTM.
Let’s be clear: this is not a viable or sustainable way to fund our schools and, frankly, it should be quite embarrassing for a district in an affluent town with an enviable grand list to rely on pandemic rebates procured at the last minute to fund our school’s operating expenses. Which brings us to the next topic: the BOE capital budget, or, our school facilities and infrastructure.
There are 15 schools in the GPS district: 11 Elementary schools, 3 Middle Schools and 1 High School. The average age of our schools is 67 years old and 3 schools (Old Greenwich, Riverside and Julian Curtiss) are still not in compliance with ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act) laws. What this means is that if a student with a physical disability were to enroll in any of those 3 schools, they would have a hard time accessing classrooms, as these buildings do not have elevator access and teachers have had to carry children up and down staircases. Not only is this discriminatory and unconscionable but it also opens our schools up to class action lawsuits. Nevertheless, these capital projects were cut.
So too were much needed improvements to Greenwich High School’s Fields/Stadium. While there may not be any spectator sports events in the short-term, Greenwich High School has been in dire need of a usable stadium for its athletes for years, with football games held offsite and lacrosse practices held in the dark due to lack of lighting. And in April of last year, the bleachers at Greenwich High School Stadium buckled during a lacrosse game. Thankfully, nobody got hurt, but on further inspection, it had been discovered that they were not built to code for over 50 years and are not handicap accessible either. You guessed it – this capital project was cut on April 27 as well. The BET voted to reduce the $4.8 million allocation for the stadium by $1.2 million.
While we are on the subject of fields, we mustn’t ignore the plight of Western Middle School, whose fields have been closed due to PCB and other environmental pollutants since 2016. For 4 years, WMS students have had to make do with a small patch of grass on which to have recess on. Children participating in intramural field sports have had to be bussed to other area fields. While we await state and federal approvals for its cleanup, the $8.5M allocated toward it was also cut for next year so these children will have to wait longer yet.
The budget for Central Middle School’s fields were also cut. The perennially flooding fields have not been able to be used for recess or after school sports for at least 2 years now. It too will be put on hold also for at least another year. And Fields 6 & 7 at Greenwich High School which have been contaminated with PCB and arsenic for over 10 years will only finally be remediated this summer.
The list goes on and on. The bottom line is that Greenwich’s public schools are in trouble. They’ve been in trouble for years now, yet our town government refuses to prioritize our schools and kick the can down the road. That road ends with us. Just say NO to the 2% budget mandate. Just say NO to postponed and canceled capital projects, backed by empty promises. Just say NO to defunding our public schools.