Goldrick: BET Republicans ignored the values of the community

Sean B. Goldrick served four years as a Democratic member of the BET. He lives in Riverside.

Last month, Republican BET member, Bill Drake, published an oped (“How Greenwich Officials Used the General Fund for Education this Year”) riddled with distortions and misleading claims.  Here we’ll set the record straight.
Drake claimed in his oped that 58% of Greenwich’s operating budget goes to fund our public school system.  Not true.  The recently approved Greenwich BOE budget for FY2021 totals $163.4 million.  That represents just over 36% of the town’s total operating budget of $448.4 million.  The BOE’s non-salary personnel costs, which are listed in the budget under “fixed costs,” total $45 million.  So the total cost of our public schools comes to $208.4 million, just over 46% of the town’s budget.

Contrary to Drake’s insinuation that Greenwich spends a great deal on education, that 46% figure actually ranks far below virtually every other suburban municipality in the state.  Indeed, most comparable suburban Connecticut towns allocate a vastly higher percentage of their total budgets, between 60%-75%, to fund their school systems.  A key reason that our school system’s budget comprises such a small proportion of the budget is that Greenwich enrolls the smallest percentage of its school-aged children in its public school system of any municipality in Connecticut.

Drake made more factual errors when claiming that, “Since our General Fund pays for nearly all our spending, 58 percent of the $19.1 million drawn from the fund is the portion allocated to schools.”  That is incorrect for two reasons.  First, the public schools budget comprises just 46% of total spending, not 58%.  The second error is his assumption that the $19.1 million “use of fund balance” to balance the FY21 budget goes evenly to all town departments; it doesn’t.

In the upcoming 2021 fiscal year, the BET allocated $4.1 million of the $19.1 million “use of fund balance” to The Nathaniel Witherell, the town-owned and -operated nursing home and rehab facility.  That $4.1 million represents  21% of the total use of fund balance.  That means that, net of the allocation to TNW, the percentage going to the BOE budget is just over a third of the total, not the 58% claimed.

Drake claims that the upcoming budget’s use of $19.1 million from cash reserves to balance the budget is, “the largest amount used in my years on the BET and probably the largest amount ever.”  He’s wrong on both counts.  The town of Greenwich allocated $19.7 million from fund balance in FY2017; Drake was a member of the BET at the time.  Drake then asserts that, “The figures show that we used a record amount of the fund to support the full extent of town spending, and schools are always the majority of our spending.”  The use of fund balance was not a “record”; the “majority” of of fund balance is not going to schools, since the schools budget has not comprised a majority of the town budget for many years.

Indeed, not only did the use of fund balance not stop his fellow Republicans from slashing $3.1 million from the BOE budget, Drake also fails to mention that the use of $19.1 million from fund balance still leaves over $40 million in the general fund balance untouched, and more than $50 million in cash reserves.  So despite the fact that the general fund balance is there precisely to be utilized in situations of economic uncertainty to avoid damaging and painful cuts to critically important municipal services, such as public education, Drake and the BET Republicans left tens of millions in cash reserves untouched, while slashing millions from our schools.  

There’s one more important point that Drake left out: Virtually every fiscal year, despite “allocating” millions from cash reserves to balance Greenwich’s operating budget, those cash reserves not only don’t contract, they actually increase.  Indeed, preliminary estimates show that despite allocating $15.3 million from reserves to balance the just completed FY20 budget, cash reserves remain unchanged from a year ago: $76 million.  So not only did the BET Republicans cut the schools budget by more than $3 million while leaving tens of millions untouched in cash reserves, they made the cuts knowing full well that cash reserves likely won’t end up being utilized at all.

Drake closes his oped by claiming, “We have tried to balance the interests of schools, parents, students, residents, and taxpayers. This budget and tax rate are inspired by respect for every citizen.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Drake and his fellow Republicans displayed a total lack of respect for the wishes of Greenwich parents who overwhelmingly demonstrated their desire to preserve education funding.  The BET Republicans ignored the values of the community by enacting major cuts to school spending, despite having ample resources available that could easily have prevented those cuts.

That’s not “respect for every citizen,” that’s contempt.  I hope this “clears up the confusion.”