BLANKLEY: About that Education Budget…

John Blankley, Former member of the BET and currently serving on the First Selectman’s special advisory team.

Greenwich’s finance board, the Board of Estimate and Taxation, the “BET,” wields enormous power and many of our townsfolk, not previously engaged in town politics are finding out just how powerful this body can be.

By its decision to cut $3mill from the Board of Education’s proposed budget it has stamped its big foot on a matter dear to every parent (and grand-parent – that would be me) of a public school child.

Outraged parents are learning that what the BET taketh away, the RTM cannot add back.

By refusing to reconsider the matter at a special meeting on Tuesday and using rules of procedure to do so, Republicans on the BET have shown what the arrogance of power really means.

Unknown at this point is how the superintendent and the BOE are going to respond to the new constriction but teacher layoffs are threatened.

I have sat on the RTM, ran for First Selectman and served two terms on the BET and therefore have some acquaintance with both the institutions and individual board members. When I served on the BET I argued as best I could for less micromanaging and a less heavy-handed approach. It is difficult however when you have the power of the purse to use it judiciously. But I sat on the board in what we can now see were the good times. We exercised sound financial management, Republicans and Democrats alike; though let us not forget that our town finances are helped enormously by our massive Grand List and the fact that a third of our school children attend private schools.

If there is such a thing as the Greenwich brand, it is a reputation for financial stability, location of course, and good education. Over time we have managed to keep tax increases moderate and yet preserve town services and above all the quality of education in an annual budgetary balancing act that has satisfied majority opinion. We still haven’t achieved perfection, witness the matter of school fields, Cardinal Stadium renewal and we only just managed to navigate the MISA project through some very heavy weather. But by and large most would say the balance has been about right. And the proof is that we have continued to attract young families migrating from the big city.

On this occasion however BET Republicans have abandoned the well tested playbook, citing the corona virus crisis. No doubt the BET should reshape the budget to take into account the unprecedented pressures of lost revenue caused by the pandemic. If ever we could say we have a rainy day, this is it. But here’s the thing: thanks to good management in prior years we have a significant reserve fund whose very purpose is to deal with a crisis.

Democrats wanted to dip into the fund, call it a rainy day fund, to preserve the school budget. BET Republicans wouldn’t have it.

Here’s another point I don’t understand; there appear to have been no talks between the chairs of the boards as there were in previous times of crisis, no exploration of the consequences of a cut. I don’t doubt there are some efficiencies that the BOE could find, as Mike Mason, the Republican chair of the BET, has intimated but that won’t cover a $3 million hole. I don’t question the sincerity of BET Republicans, but their intransigence on the education budget does make me question their judgment.

This would have been an occasion to differentiate ourselves from other towns by demonstrating our ability to weather a crisis. We could have maintained the key selling points we have as a town: good education and a low mill rate.

So BET Republicans have upset the balance between these competing interests, carefully fashioned over time, and for no good purpose. The budget now goes to the RTM but the RTM has no power to add to any part of the budget. It would be unprecedented but even now the BET could reconsider, negotiate with the BOE and send the RTM a revised budget with restored funding for our public schools.

Absent that, my only comment can be, to parents and board members alike – elections have consequences. Even in an age of short term political memory this is an issue that won’t be forgotten.

John Blankley, Former member of the BET and currently serving on the First Selectman’s special advisory team.