Blankley: Investing in Education is the Only Way Forward

Rendering of proposed new New Lebanon School

Letter to the editor submitted by John Blankley, Democratic member of the Board of Estimate and Taxation and exploring a run for State Treasurer

The New Lebanon school project is my theme today but I want to place it in a much wider context.

We heard a truly inspiring speech this week at the schools convocation held in our wonderful new high school auditorium, in which the speaker predicted that 65% of current kindergarten kids will do jobs in their lives that we today cannot even name. What a thought!

This is the pace of modern technological development. And the exponential growth curve of this advance steepens by the day. It is a worldwide phenomenon and we in the US need to get ahead of this curve in the only way possible: by continuing to invest in the education of our children.

However, education funding is being threatened in Connecticut by our state’s budget woes.

In exploring a run for State Treasurer I have visited over 45 towns across the state (with many more to go!) and the one question I get everywhere is, what can we do to preserve our commitment to one of the highest standards of education in the country?

Budgeting in a time of financial stress is proving to be a nightmare – no wonder our legislators still have not agreed on a budget. But no excuses; I say if we have to prioritize anything, it is education. And that should be in all forms. For example, vocational training is a must when we hear that high tech manufacturers like Electric Boat find it difficult to recruit skilled workers.

So how should we invest our education dollars? First we must keep up the pace with operating expenditures and continue to fund innovations such as the excellent digital learning initiative which is proving so successful in our schools in Greenwich. But we must also invest in infrastructure and build good modern facilities. In my time in local politics I am proud of the hand I played in the high school auditorium and even though I am now involved mainly in state politics I will continue to advocate for what we must do in my home town.

And so I come to my main theme: the rebuilding and expansion of New Lebanon Elementary school, itself a component of a detailed district-wide study of capital expenditure needs recently commissioned by the BOE.

This is not the place to rehearse all the arguments for “New Leb,” all of which point overwhelmingly to getting this project done but they include: the expanding population, getting pre-K kids back in the building and providing adequate instructional space for academic and enrichment activities.

The financing of the project is helped enormously by a state grant made available to help the district address a racial imbalance issue. Sadly some naysayers, even some in my own party, reject a grant designed to solve this problem. The state’s agencies have signed off on the grant and its purpose, so why argue with that? Some are opposed to a larger school but the experience we had with Glenville tells us that we should build appropriately sized schools to accommodate demographic swings.

Then some try to use the state’s financial situation to bolster their position. The grant for New Leb will be bonded and while some will complain that this imposes a burden on future generations, I say yes, that is so and moreover that is how it should be.

For this is a multi-generational enterprise and the cost should be shared over time, especially when the investment is so important. Extricating ourselves from our debt overhang is a long term objective and the growth and value created by the next generation will slowly but surely achieve that goal. And it’s starting now: Business Magazine has just reported that 34 of the country’s 500 fastest growing companies are based in Connecticut. I would argue that the connection with education is no coincidence.

And while I must take a wider view when considering state office I can still point out that a $23 million grant is a small sum for Greenwich to ask in compensation for the near billion dollars a year that our area sends to Hartford. It is heartening to see the combined efforts, across party lines, of the BOE and our state delegation to get this done for Greenwich. I reject completely the charge of inconsistency, if not hypocrisy, recently levelled at the delegation, accused of preaching austerity on the one hand and spending on the other with New Leb. They, like so many of us, are saying education is a top priority. And goodness knows, I have sparred with my friends across the aisle in past elections on many issues, but they have it right on this one.

I will conclude by saying that the State Treasurer is responsible for bond issuance and pension fund management and is thus somewhat removed from local issues but should I be elected to that office I will continue to advocate not only for what is right in education across the state but also for what is right for my home town.

John Blankley
Democratic member of the Board of Estimate and Taxation and exploring a run for State Treasurer

  • Matt Popp

    John – What expanding population? School enrollment across the district is down and sharply down (-33%) at New Ledanon. Overall Greenwich’s population has been stable for years. If the super sized New Lebanon School is built, with a capacity for an additional 1,000 students in our elementary schools, which other elementary school would you close?

    • Lucy

      Matt, this is false information. According to the enrollment report presented at the 8/24 BoE meeting (easily accessed online), enrollment for 2016-17 was the highest it’s been since 2007-08 and is projected to increase by 115-160 kids over the next ten years. And enrollment at NL has been fairly stable =/- 6 kids (out of 260ish) for the last five years. Projections for 2017-18 were up and enrollment is projected to increase by more than 50 kids within ten years. Further, the 1,000 child capacity is misleading at best as it is only the sum of classroom capacity less the number of students in the whole district. You can’t fill every classroom at every school to its cap. This number doesn’t account for reality.

      • Lucy
        • Matt Popp

          Lucy – Births from 2002 to 2014 down more than 150. K down sharply at NL (not detailed in referenced report).

          Current 1,000 empty elementary school seats means oversized NL will be empty unless Parkway (or North Street) is closed.

          BOE Charman had it correct: “As a result, I don’t want my name attached to the plan to build a bigger building than we’ll ever need at the highest cost possible in a completely substandard location, and therefore won’t be voting. ”

          • Lucy

            Again, this is totally misleading. Births are down in the district from 2002-2014 but went up in Byram by 63!! That’s 4 classrooms!!!! The school is already overcrowded by multiple classrooms and common spaces and offices are so much smaller than standard. And, I’ll add, that you are not taking into consideration the fact that a lot of people have chosen other schools because of the current overcrowding. Oh, and what about adding pre-k? That’s 3 classrooms for a program that has 3-4 kids applying per seat – that will fill instantly. BoE Chairman, if I recall correctly had the ONLY dissenting vote. This 1,000 empty seat thing is so absurd. The only possible way to deal with that would be redistricting, but the town rejected that option and the consultants said it wouldn’t likely help for more than 10 years because of growth in Byram.

          • Matt Popp

            Which school should Greenwich close, Parkway or North Street?

          • Lucy

            That’s a tough decision to make and one that should be studied before doing so, given that enrollment is projected to rise. I think you’re also purposefully ignoring the issue of pre-k, which is an increasing need in Greenwich and which could add students to classrooms all over the district, North Street, being centrally located is a school that could really benefit from that. Minor redistricting is also a possibility, and should be considered periodically as the town’s neighborhoods change over time. To not build the proposed building is extremely short-sighted given the increasing density in Byram and Western Greenwich in general. No one wants to close a school, but the town also needs to be realistic about how it is evolving. If you really want to solve some of these problems, I’d suggest you put your energy into zoning, which is largely what got us here in the first place and will continue to contribute to the problem for years to come. Maybe putting some affordable housing near Parkway would be the solution.

          • Matt Popp

            Enrollment is on the decline. Byram and the western side of town is nearly fully built out so density will not increase. More likely Byram will become more gentrified like central Greenwich. With gentrification comes less kids. With a oversized NL school there will be pressure to significantly increase Byram’s density to fill the empty new school.

          • Lucy

            Enrollment went from 8,968 in 2007-2008 to a low of 8,736 in 2014-15 (-3.5%) and then INCREASED for the last two years to 8,926 (+3.2%) in 2016-17. The current net change from 2007 to today is less than .5% and is, as noted, increasing. A 14-unit building is planned for 88 S. Water. And using the “likelihood” of gentrification, without any real actions from the town to support gentrification is poor planning policy. Putting aside our differing opinions, I would like to know how you propose redistricting to fill those empty seats you refer to. How much would the busing cost annually? How long would the redistricting last? How long would the bus rides be? You have a lot more kids in your neighborhood than were here 10 years ago and all of the data points to more coming. Where are you going to send them?

          • Matt Popp

            I would recommend that we don’t build an oversized school. Children who live near a border to another school may for time to time switch schools (just like what has been done in the past).

            NL is proposed as a magnet school that will attract (and bus) kids from all over Greenwich. So the price of busing is already accounted for.

            16 units as proposed on South Water Street will have the same number of children as the adjacent 6 unit building (0).

          • Lucy

            The schools that border NL, Ham Ave and Glenville, are at capacity now. Where are they going to put the NL overflow? We’re talking dozens of kids! They’d have to move some of those kids to neighboring schools. And that just dominoes because density in Greenwich is clustered at the shore and toward the west and the least crowded schools are in the least dense areas. That density, even if it doesn’t grow, isn’t going away anytime soon. And you know that much of the additional square footage of the proposed building, like 20k sf, is solely to bring the school into line with state and district standards, right? And what about those 3 pre-k classrooms that are proposed? If you propose doing away with them, then what are your plans for the achievement gap? I don’t recall GPS promising busing. Can you tell me where that info comes from? Having followed the busing plans for the start time change, I can’t imagine that even if they had made promises, that there is any assurance that the cost would be a wash.

          • Matt Popp

            The site plan propose a bus drop off area for 6-7 buses and I believe 2 vans. The NL traffic study also indicates busing.

            Just wondering, do you think the new magnet school will reduce the racial imbalance at the Greenwich’s western elementary schools?

          • Lucy

            I think that if busing and pre-k are part of the deal, that the racial imbalance would most definitely shift. When the school is built, or even just knowing that it’s a done deal will halt a lot of the movement of white families out of the school through magnet or private schools (I belong to one of those families). There are many kids in my son’s grade at JC that live in Byram that would otherwise have stayed. Aside from all of that, I am confident that the new school as planned will actually be quite full on day one. There are already 3 sections in a few grades and we need pre-k badly. Even if there were 3-4 empty classrooms on day 1, which I highly doubt, that’s not exactly a huge excess and it may take a couple of years to gain back the lost enrollment.

          • Matt Popp

            Moving students between JC, Ham Ave and NL does nothing to improve the racial imbalance between east and west which is required, it only shifts the problem. NL will only be full after Parkway is closed and the empty classrooms get repurposed as additional art, Spanish, and math rooms.

          • Matt Popp

            The Demographic Study for Greenwich Public Schools (Statistical Forecasting LLC), dated July 2017, is not reliable.

            The report forecasts district PreK-12 enrollment over the next decade from 2017 to 2027.

            The document overlooked “real time” data points in PreK and K. The report’s enrollment projections of the 2017-2018 PreK and K classes are substantially overestimated, 12% and 16% respectfully. Greater accuracy would have been expected. A district enrollment report prepare two months before the study’s release forecasted actual K enrollment significantly lower than the study’s projection. This was common knowledge across the district. But it was not factored into the study.

            Comparing the most recent 2017-2018 Enrollment Report, dated 8/15/17, to the study, the noted variances are listed below:

            District: Actual vs. Projection:
            PreK-5: 4260 vs. 4409 (-149 students, -4%)
            PreK: 145 vs. 164 (-19 students, -12%)
            K: 617 vs. 732 (-115 students, -16%)

            School: Kindergarten Actual vs. Projection:
            CC: 66 vs. 80 (-14 students, -18%)
            GL: 77 vs. 95 (-18 students, -19%)
            HA: 53 vs. 73 (-20 students, -27%)
            ISD: 52 vs. 59 (-7 students, -12%)
            JC: 47 vs. 61 (-14 students, -23%)
            NL: 27 vs. 48 (-21 students, -44%)
            NM: 78 vs. 79 (-1 student, -1%)
            NS: 66 vs. 47 (+19 students, +40%)
            OG: 62 vs. 64 (-2 students, -3%)
            PK: 28 vs. 41 (-13 students, -32%)
            RS: 61 vs. 85 (-24 students, -28%)

            Overestimating 2017-2028 PreK and K enrollment by a large margin impacts the reliability of the study’s projections of future years.

          • Peter Alexander

            Air Quality at site is unacceptable & will worsen. Many options exist.
            Golden string “Affordable Puppet Parasite Masters” should not be underestimated. Only real cost of M.I.s.
            Can’t even replace a gym floor?
            Spend 17 m to fix a pool leak or 3.5m on Binney Bungle instead of a 45k silt trap 20 years ago. Matt this is not the Town we grew up in…BUT not to late to keep city slicker $nickers spoiling stable satisfying successful TOWN…

          • Matt Popp

            the alternative to New Leb Magnet is not re-districting, but to alllow Byram families to (continue to) send their children to Balanced Schools. Provide transporation would ensure that minority families can take advantage.

          • Lucy

            That presumes that families would prefer to send their kids elsewhere, which surveys have shown is not at all what people want. Most families have done that only under duress. If you can’t get families to volunteer, then you have to force them to move. I cant really see how you get that many families on board. There are already 60+ kids in magnets. And speaking for myself, busing isn’t enough. if families can’t make it to open house, conferences, afters pick ups, etc then their child has less of a chance at succeeding and parents are alienated. I have a feeling I’m not going to convince you though, Matt!