On Monday April 27, the Board of Estimation and Taxation (BET) voted to reduce the current Greenwich town budget by over $10 million, due to the COVID-19 crisis and related financial repercussions. $3 million would come from the planned schools budget. Greenwich Public Schools Superintendent Toni Jones was reportedly “shocked” by the level of cuts. Clearly parents were too, with almost 200 cars circling Town Hall while honking during a quickly planned protest. Social media has been inundated by parents voicing frustrations.
During the proceedings on Monday, Leslie Moriarty, Democratic Caucus Leader for the BET, advocated for a smaller budget cut. “People on the BET are naturally fiscally-oriented. There’s a reaction by some members to be so conservative in addressing the unknowns of the future. I’m cognizant of those same unknowns but not yet willing to unilaterally say ‘we’re going to roll back the services that are provided in the schools’,” says Moriarty.
As Greenwich Moms, we have heard from many fellow GPS parents about their concerns—and nothing is more important than our kids, especially in a pandemic. The steep cuts concern us. Of course, we are also worried about beloved local businesses. Many of us have anxiety about how the pandemic will affect our own families’ finances. With that said, our kids have been facing months without their teachers and friends. From difficulties with distance learning (which may have to continue) to possible new social distancing requirements, it seems like the wrong time to be making deep cuts. Of particular concern is the conversation about closing Parkway, which would further disrupt an already disrupted population of children.
Some of these worries are echoed by GHS PTA co-presidents Maureen Bonnano and Terry Lamantia in an email to Greenwich Moms: “As we do not know the impact of Distance Learning on our students and the potential need for smaller classrooms to adhere to new social distancing requirements in the Fall, it seems ill-advised to force the GPS district to make any reductions in staff, programs and services for our students. Finally, as a consequence of distance learning, students may need additional programming in the fall to recover from months of distance learning.”
In addition to the PTA leaders, we spoke to several other people involved with or part of town offices affected by the decision this week, to gain a better understanding of the situation, including: Leslie Moriarty, Democratic Caucus Leader for the BET, Michael Mason, Republic Caucus Leader for the BET and Majority Leader, First Selectman Fred Camillo, Toni Jones, Greenwich Public Schools Superintendent, and Kathleen Stowe, Board of Education Vice Chair. Here are some highlights from our conversations:
Those Opposing These Cuts Were Aware that Cuts Needed to Be Made But Surprised at the Depth
“I agree that we need to be responsible to challenges we’re facing, but the question is how to you do it. We have to be cautious with spending but also with the impact of cuts,” says BET Democratic Caucus Leader Leslie Moriarty. Most vexing to her was the lack of conversation about the effects these cuts would have. “There was no discussion of the impacts on services by the approval of this reduction. We had [Schools Superintendent] Toni Jones send us a memo Saturday which explained how we might deal with these reductions…but the conversation yesterday was strictly financial,” says Moriarty. Kathleen Stowe, who is Vice-President of the Board of Education and has kids at Parkway School, said she was “disheartened” by the figures: “I was hopeful it would have been more reasonable and closer to what the administration suggested they could dig deep.”
Moriarty argues the savings to the public by having a negative mill rate isn’t worth it, from her perspective: “If the mill rate was held flat versus a decline that would have helped schools, human services, etc. To put it into context, if you own a $1 million house, that’s a $64 savings per year—that’s what their budget recommendations would do. If it had held flat we could have put $3 million back into the schools, health department, human services, potentially into the capital funds for future projects…” says Moriarty. She also notes “Some of the suggestions Mr. [Michael] Mason is suggesting about how we can make these cuts without impacting classrooms are things he has been saying over the last few years, and now he has the opportunity to justify them.”
We asked Superintendent Toni Jones to explain her comment that she was “shocked” by the decision. “I do understand that COVID-19 poses challenges, but I did not think that we would see the lowest percentage increase to our budget that has happened in the last 20 years. During 2009-2010 Economic Crisis, our budget was tight, but it was still just shy of a 1% increase. After listening to the BET workshops this past Friday, I was fully prepared and understood that a reduction was likely, but not of this magnitude. Our proposed budget at 2% was already less than what was required to cover our fixed costs and obligations, so we cut areas to put forward a low 2% increase,” says Jones.
It Was Noted That Greenwich Isn’t the Only Town Cutting
“We’re getting reports in from other communities like Trumbull, West Hartford, Cheshire as well as similar towns like Darien, Westport, Weston, Westport, that they are reducing their Board of Education budgets by 2.3, 3.7 percent,” says BET Republican Caucus Leader Michael Mason, who says his aim is to make cuts now and return to usual budget changes in the future. He says: “Our hope is that we don’t have a multiyear impact like this—we are in this together.”
However, Moriarty asserts that comparing Greenwich and these towns is like comparing apples to oranges, due to size, socioeconomic diversity and other factors. “I was on the BOE for 8 years and the challenges Greenwich has with its diversity—every child comes into our classwork at a different point, whether it’s advanced on the spectrum or the challenges. It takes more resources to do it well,” says Moriarty.
The Uncertainty of Next Year Was a Factor in the Cuts
From Mason’s perspective, the question marks regarding next year led to uncertainties about what amount of money is needed. “We’ve asked all the departments to use every tool and opportunity especially since we don’t know what programs are going to return. What programs are going to run in school and not run in school? Are there going to be sports or concerts? We don’t know that. On top of all that we have cash reserves if needed, if things returned to normal and we can implement them then. How can the BOE plan if they don’t know if they’re going to have choir practice?” When asked if that money might be spent on improving remote learning, Mason responded that that improving distance learning falls under the domain of the schools, but that “We have been way ahead of the curve on digital learning.”
Money Can Be Added—But It’s Not a Perfect Fix
As Mason stated above, there is a “rainy day” fund that has been discus
sed. “The town charter allows at any time to bring a request for interim appropriation—additional spending,” explains Mason. “If the BOE decides they need more money a conversation can happen about this “interim funding.” But Moriarty says that doesn’t allows the BOE to plan efficiently. “Our superintendent is charged with delivering services with the budget she’s been allocated. She can’t assume she’ll get more money and that is a substantive difference,” says Moriarty.
There is Hope in the Conversations…
Jones pledges to parents: “We will do everything possible to have the least impact on students and staff.” And Stowe echoes the feeling of many parents: “We hear you. I have 3 kids in the public schools too. Obviously students will have some catching up to do anyway once we are back in a traditional classroom, and so more cuts to the classroom certainly does not help that. Having said that, we have a wonderful superintendent who always remains calm and positive. We have a Board that is working well together, and of course many wonderful leaders and most importantly teachers, so I know we will step up and make sure we do our best for the students. As a Mom, I think there will of course be impacts to our children, but as Chair of the Budget committee, I am going to work really hard to make sure they are not negatively impacted academically, and that all their needs are somehow met.” Mason hopes that in the future not only regular budget changes will return but also a commitment to capital projects throughout town.
…and You Can Still Share Your Concerns
First Selectman Fred Camillo, whose office is not involved in this decision, agrees that productive dialogue at this point is crucial, and suggests asking for a virtual meeting with the BET members. “I would contact members on both sides of the issues—understanding both sides is a good starting point. Ask for a Zoom meeting. You may learn something you hadn’t considered and vice versa. If you ask for the meeting, as public officials they need to listen and meet with you whether virtually or not, and explain their decisions,” says Camillo. He shares that as First Selectman, he has had to delay projects that were crucial to him, like the waterfront redevelopment platform he ran his campaign. “I understand that there is solid reasoning [behind decisions like this],” says Camillo.
Moriarty says she hopes that the BET itself may regroup prior to the May 5 RTM meeting. “Before May 5, the BET could try to meet to get to a different budget and potentially asking us to do that might be helpful,” says Moriarty.
What else can you do? Vote in every election. The BET is comprised of 12 people, 6 Democrats and 6 Republications. These are chosen by the parties’ various town committees, but the way the majority leader is chosen is by which party has a better turnout. In this case, with people voting along party lines so strictly, the tiebreaking vote by the majority leader was crucial.
How to Advocate
Contact the Board of Ed ASAP
There is a special Board of Ed meeting tonight April 30 at 7 pm. You can email boardofedmembers@greenwich,k12.ct.us to share your concerns.
Contact the BET Prior to the May 5 RTM Meeting
As Fred Camillo suggests, you can request a conversation and as Leslie Moriarty mentions, urge them to meet again before May 5 to reconsider:
To contact the full Board of Estimate and Taxation, please email: email@example.com
Individual BET members can be reached as follows:
Bill Drake William.Drake@greenwichct.org
Andy Duus Andy.Duus@greenwichct.org
Laura Erickson Laura.Erickson@greenwichct.org
Karen Fassuliotis Karen.Fassuliotis@greenwichct.org
Debra Hess Debra.Hess@greenwichct.org
Miriam L. Kreuzer Miriam.Kreuzer@greenwichct.org
Elizabeth K. Krumeich Beth.Krumeich@greenwichct.org
Michael S. Mason Michael.Mason@greenwichct.org
Leslie Moriarty Leslie.Moriarty@greenwichct.org
Jeffrey S. Ramer Jeff.Ramer@greenwichct.org
Leslie L. Tarkington Leslie.Tarkington@greenwichct.org
David Weisbrod david.Weisbrod@greenwichct.org