BROOKS HARRIS: What “Really Happened” Here?

Submitted by Brooks Harris

I was quite disappointed to read James Waters interpretation of “what really happened” in the recent school budget debate (“The Vote Against Schools – What Really Happened”Greenwich Free Press, June 14, 2020). Mr. Waters touts his background in government, having worked as an aid in the OMB under George Bush. Given his experience, you would think he could put forward a better effort to address an issue that is so important to all of us. Or maybe you would see how he has turned the needs of the Town into an opportunity for bullying and political grandstanding.

Mr. Waters complains about procedure, but he has no one but himself to blame for his poor efforts. He wants us to vote on his issue now, and any delay is mean-spirited by people who are bad. So bad, you need to remember their names. Nice! I guess I should be thankful he did not include our addresses (this time).

If he really cared about the kids or education, he would take a moment to address the issue more thoughtfully and more maturely. But emotions run high, and I suppose it is hard to wait. So, Mr. Waters got together with a handful of other residents and quickly called for an RTM “Sense of the Meeting Resolution” (SOMR) to encourage the BET to increase its funding for schools next year. If you believe this funding is important, this effort failed our kids in two important ways.

First, the resolution proposed by Mr. Waters and his co-signers was fatally flawed. You do not have to have a lot of Washington experience to see this. Among other things, the resolution asked the BET to approve interim funding for spending next year which has not even yet been requested. Yes, if the schools open in the fall, expenses may be higher, but then when the procedures and costs are identified, they can be proposed, evaluated and voted on. Education is one of my top priorities, and I have never voted “no” on an interim educational request. I hope the schools will be open, so I will be able to vote “yes” on this kind of spending. The resolution also sought to take any excess from this year’s budget (since the schools have been closed, we spent less than expected) and allow the schools to spend that money any way they like next year with NO oversight from the BET or the RTM.

Those of us who volunteer for the RTM owe a duty of oversight to the residents who elected us. Remember not too long ago when the schools ripped the roof off of Julian Curtis without approved funds to replace it? You may not want to give up that oversight too readily. The proposed SOMR was sufficiently flawed that the Education Committee, which appears to support the spirit of the resolution, rewrote it.

Which brings us to the second fatal flaw. These changes were made just days before the June RTM meeting and after RTM members were sent their information for the meeting. It is not clear members had enough time or information to decide on this important issue. Lack of adequate information has been an ongoing issue with the RTM. People bring complex and important issues to the body without proper notice, and we are asked to make decisions which could have significant and unintended consequences. That would not be good. Last December, this had become such a problem that the RTM voted on a “second read” rule which determined the deadline after which voting on a proposed item
would be delayed until the following RTM meeting. This rule was adopted with only 16 out of 230 members objecting. If a member does not feel they have been given adequate time and information to vote, it is their duty to take the time they need, no matter the underlying issue.

Now you may say, but this is so important it is an exception. And if 2/3 of the members agree that we have enough information to make an informed vote and time is of the essence, then we can forego that delay and vote right then. It is a higher hurdle than 50% intentionally, because every issue is important and urgent to those who propose it, but we still must be informed to vote properly. And on issues when members have felt prepared, we have gotten this 2/3 threshold and voted immediately. The rule is working as intended.

Finally, I am going to call Mr. Waters out for missing the forest for the trees. While the schools have been asked to get by on a flat budget next year, our 15-year plan has excluded many significant projects which had been deemed necessary in the Board of Education’s “Master Plan” of capital needs. Overhauls for Eastern Middle School, Western Middle School, Glenville, New Lebanon, Hamilton Avenue and others were identified as needed by the Board of Education, but excluded in the capital plan presented to the RTM in June. These projects total over $400 million. So, where are the people who supposedly care about Greenwich schools on this? Even though I do not have kids in the Greenwich public schools, I seem to care more about the condition of our schools than people who would conveniently ignore this issue.

I stated in my opposition to a blank check on interim expenditures that we should consider whether this money could be better applied to our capital needs. It does not seem that long ago that advocates of education were bemoaning the crumbling conditions of our schools. What happened to that priority? And of course, Mr. Waters failed to note that I advocated for this, because it is inconvenient for his narrative. Bringing that up would almost make it sound like I care! It baffles me that someone who is so cavalier about hundreds of millions of dollars of capital spending cuts can be so morally self-righteous over a flat operating budget.

So, remember my name if you must, but not because I do not care about the kids. Remember me as the one who called for a holistic evaluation of both capital and operating expenditures, to make our schools better. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with budgeting would understand that Mr. Waters’ proposal is an emotional and divisive appeal, but does not serve our community’s long-term interests. Perhaps this is the way things work in Washington, but I am a volunteer, not a politician, and I will advocate for the sensible and thoughtful delivery of services to make Greenwich the best Town we can be.

Brooks Harris is a volunteer member of the RTM who has not spent any time in Washington as a bureaucrat. The views in this editorial are my own and do not represent the RTM or the various committees I serve on.