Michael Basham is Chair of the Greenwich Representative Town Meeting Finance Committee. The opinions herein do not represent those of the RTM or any of its standing committees.
As Yogi Berra, the New York Yankees Hall of Fame catcher once said: “It’s like déjà vu all over again.” This year, like last, the Republican led BET has been the target of an unfair and totally unnecessary political assault predicated on false narratives and fear mongering by citizens concerned about school funding.
Last spring, during the unprecedented COVID shutdown and the associated economic uncertainty, the Republican BET made the prudent decision to hold all Town budgets, including that for schools, flat for the upcoming fiscal year. School supporters began dispensing their alarmist rhetoric about teachers being fired and programs being cut.
A sense of the meeting resolution, demanding that the BET grant all BOE interim appropriation requests, came before the RTM in May. All of this was taking place while school closures resulted in significant cost savings that allowed school administrators to pre-order millions of dollars of supplies for the upcoming year and return $3.5 million in additional savings to the Town. In the end, it was very clear the BET Republican majority, that had been subjected to incredible pressure and pilloried by local Democrats and school supporters, made the responsible decision. No teachers were terminated and no programs were cut.
Now here we are again having gone through a similar alarmist exercise, where the Republican BET members were criticized for making a reasonable budget request of the BOE. After the collapse of the ceiling at North Mianus School, the BOE asked for $8.1 million for expenses associated with the collapse. This was based on a rough estimate, that school administrators now admit they knew was too high. The Republican BET approved only $2.1 million to cover initial costs and asked the BOE to come back with an actual cost estimate after soliciting bids for the proposed work. Again, school supporters and alarmists criticized the BET for not providing the BOE with the full amount requested, and accused the Republicans of creating unnecessary delays in returning the children back to school.
A progressive group in Town even took it upon themselves to find fault with the budget process enshrined in the Town Charter because it doesn’t allow the RTM to appropriate the full $8.1 million. On Monday, the BOE requested $2.6 million in additional funding which includes $850,000 for facilities rent which was not part of the original request. This brought the total amount to $4.7 million, a significant reduction from the original $8.1 million request that did not include any facilities rent. Once again, the prudent approach of the Republican led BET has been vindicated. Imagine what the contractor’s estimate would have been if the full $8.1 million had been granted as opponents wanted.
The Town is incredibly fortunate that the ceiling collapse at North Mianus occurred when students were on vacation. If students and staff had been present, it could have resulted in a catastrophe that would have scarred our community for years.
Immediately after the collapse, the Republican Chair of the BET, Michael Mason stated, unequivocally, that the BET would make the necessary funds available to restore the school and get the students back in their classrooms as soon as humanly possible. The BOE presented their revised funding request to the BET on Monday afternoon, and the BOE approved it that evening by a vote of 12-0-0.
There is an old adage that states: “The school budget is the third rail of local politics, touch it at your peril.” In both instances over the last year, Republican BET members were personally attacked by Democrats, school supporters and alarmists, and unfairly, and often maliciously portrayed as unconcerned about the needs of our schools. There was one quote that referred to “the blood of 9,000 students” being on their hands, and “wanted” posters were circulated with Republican members names on them. Personal attacks of this nature are beyond the
pale, and hopefully are not indicative of the kind of Town we want our community to be. The national political discourse may demonize those in disagreement, but I sincerely hope that our citizens can rise above that negativity and learn to respect the principled opinions that differ from their own.
Fortunately, resulting events unquestionably justify the Republican’s approach to managing the Town’s finances and, hopefully, this unfair, and all too frequent Republican school narrative has been discredited. The Republican led BET, dared to “touch the third rail” and make these difficult, but prudent decisions, and by doing so, met their commitment to the BOE, the students, school parents and most importantly, to the taxpayers of Greenwich. “Let’s go and move on.”