DTC CHAIR: We Will All Pay the Price for Republican BET Approach to School Budget

Letter to the editor submitted by Joe Angland, DTC Chair

The Republicans’ Board of Education budget cuts threaten the quality of public education in this Town.

Republican and Democratic members of the Board of Estimate and Taxation, recognizing the challenges that the Town and its residents face in these perilous times, agreed that the budget for the coming fiscal year should require no increase in the mill rate. They differed sharply, however, in how they would achieve that result. The Republicans used their tie-breaking vote to achieve the objective by slashing $3 million from the Board of Education budget that they had tentatively approved a month earlier. This savaging of the educational budget will have severe consequences for the Greenwich schools and students, especially in light of the current distance learning model. The Republican efforts to rationalize it ring hollow.

First, the Republican BET members in a recent letter to the editor attempted to don the cloaks of fiscal responsibility and compassion by arguing that this extreme cut was needed to protect the Town and its residents, who face economic challenges as a result of the pandemic. This is a strawman argument, because the Democratic and Republican BET members agreed that the budget should be set to avoid any increase in the mill rate. Democrats provided a detailed counterproposal that would have achieved the no-mill-rate-increase objective while cutting the education budget only $700,000.

Second, a letter to the editor by the Republican Town Committee Chair virtually scoffed at how outraged Greenwich parents were at the budget cut, noting that the BET had simply decided to hold the education budget at its prior year level. (RTC Chair: Greenwich schools do not have a funding problem.)

How can people be upset about keeping the budget flat, he wondered. For one thing, the Republican approach – that each Town department should receive the lower of last year’s budget or the tentatively approved budget for this year – is consummate laziness.

Especially in times of financial crisis, budgets should be subject to careful scrutiny and analysis. The decision to just repeat what was done the prior year is a decision to forego analysis – to ignore what we learned during the past year and any changed circumstances.

We have a right to expect more from our elected officials. And that is especially true when we start with the knowledge that last year’s budget significantly underestimated the cost the Town would incur paying for special education students who are sent out-of-district and that already-agreed-to labor contracts will increase costs this year.

Third, that same letter noted that per-student expenditure on Greenwich students exceeds the state average, implying that our schools have sufficient resources. But many costs are higher in Greenwich than they are in Western Connecticut or some of the state’s cities, so we can take little solace in knowing that our school spending exceeds the average.

And some Connecticut towns and cities – lacking the resources that Greenwich and some neighboring towns enjoy – are able to fund only at a level that this Town would find woefully inadequate. Thus, saying that we spend more on schools than the average Town or city in the state does little if anything to justify the funding cut.

The simplistic Republican “same-as-last-year” approach poses a real threat to the quality of public education in this Town. That does a disservice to the students and their families. It also does a disservice to all property owners in the Town, in that quality of public education is a significant determinant of property values.

I recall being significantly influenced by public school quality when my family moved here twenty-six years ago. The Greenwich school system was viewed as exceptional, not merely adequate or good.

The simplistic Republican approach to this year’s school budget will take us further from that standard of excellence. We will all pay the price.

But there is still time. Once the budget goes from the BET to the Representative Town Meeting, it can only be reduced, not increased. But the BET has a month to reconsider its decision before it submits the budget to the RTM.

Contact the Republican BET members and let them know in no uncertain terms that you oppose this cut in the education budget.