GROUP OF RTM MEMBERS: Open Letter to the BET

An Open Letter to the BET from Individual Members of the RTM

It was with great interest that we followed the BET’s discussions on decision day Monday, April 27. We share the concerns of our community that we must uphold the high quality of education in Greenwich and serve the needs of our students and staff in this time of pandemic and beyond.  The whole community has a vested interest in supporting our schools, as they attract young families to Greenwich, thereby increasing the Town’s tax base.

We understand that we must make hard decisions to get us through this economic disruption. The BET voted to require all town departments to remain at the current budget level, which results in a cut in spending potential as other costs will continue to rise.  However not all departments can respond in equal measure without impacting the level of services delivered.

Education is one such department. To reduce the operating budget by $3 million (or $4.5 million if the underbudgeted SPED costs are included) will certainly impact the classroom and have a lasting effect on the quality of our children’s education.  And the suggestion to return to the BET for interim budget requests involves approval by the BET and the RTM, at least a two-month process with uncertain outcomes.  How does the superintendent develop a budget without knowing the total funds available? Further, interims are usually reserved for capital expenses, not operating expenses.

In a memo to the Superintendent posted on BoardDocs, the BET leadership outlined 13 suggested adjustments that the BOE could make to its operating budget to achieve a $3 million reduction. Respectfully, we would like to walk through these suggestions.

1.Direct control of programming, reduce or modify – The BET stated unequivocally that the $3M cut would not impact students’ education yet reducing or modifying programing is the first suggestion made for cutting costs. To offer up programs for the chopping block is to pit one program, group of parents, or students against one another, possibly igniting a period of incivility at a time when we need to come together as a community.

2.Control of bus routes – The memo suggests a reorganization of bus routes and schedules could possibly realize a savings of $500 per day, times 180 days yields a savings of $90,000. In reality we are looking at increased transportation costs for afternoon and morning sessions.

3.Facility usage –  Is this shorthand for closing Parkway?  Closing a school is a two-year process. Public hearings must be held and new district lines would have to be drawn.  While there would be some savings in administrative staff and facility maintenance there would be increased costs in transportation.

4.Labor Negotiations – All contracts are negotiated with BET oversight and approved by various RTM committees.  In 2008 contracts were frozen as each contract came up for renegotiation. The teachers are currently in the middle of a contract and not obligated to renegotiate their contract while it is in effect. There might not even be time before July 1 for the teachers to agree to renegotiate their contract. It’s unlikely those teachers whose salary was frozen in 2008 would agree to take another salary freeze.

5. Increase class size guidelines by one student – This would be entirely impractical at this point. Given the pandemic guidelines requiring social distancing it is more likely that smaller class sizes would be required.

6. Reduce the number of substitute teachers needed – There may be more teacher illness, teachers will be in the front lines in direct contact with large numbers of students. Even if we could reduce the number of substitutes by 200 in each building that would result in a savings of only $375,000.

7. Eliminating field trips – There are very few field trips built into the operating budget most are paid for by parents out of pocket, some are subsidized by PTAs, eliminating field trips would result in minimal savings and would impact instruction.

8. Early Retirement – It could not be implemented by July 1.

9. Restore volunteers to help in the schools.  CDC will ban all volunteers from entering the schools.  The number of volunteers has declined because times have changed.  Families have less time to give to our schools, and new safety and privacy laws limit what PTA volunteers may do. Even if volunteers were permitted in the schools it’s difficult to see where there would be any savings.

10. Applying for Federal/ State Monies-Any FEMA money would go to the general fund. The amount the schools might receive from the general fund is unknown; therefore, the schools could not use this money in their budget planning.

11. State reimbursements for COVID-19 related expenses – The amount and timing of the receipt of this revenue is unknown; therefore, it cannot be part of budget planning.

12. Increased efficiency of maintenance personnel – Custodians and mechanics are Town employees and follow Town directives. Custodians clock in at their respective schools, only a very few mechanics are not assigned to a specific school and go to Town Hall to clock in.  The savings would be $9,800

13. Modify the gift cap to allow larger gifts to our schools – Our elementary and middle schools have a gift cap, the high school does not. Our fifteen PTAs will tell you that the gift cap is not what limits their generosity to our schools, the challenge is how much a PTA can raise.  Since 2008, fund raising has been an ongoing challenge and we imagine it will be even more so in the coming years. This spring due to the quarantine the PTAs were not able to hold their spring fund raisers which translates to less funds in the school year 20-21.  The schools that will need the most help will be the schools whose PTAs have the least ability to raise money from their parent bodies.  And the IRS rules governing PTA activities do not allow PTAs to make gifts to other PTAs. This suggestion implies that the BET wants to fund a reduction in the mill rate based on the generosity of our public-school families, which means our public-school parents would bear the burden of supporting a reduced mill rate twice.

14. GAF Donation – Cardinal Stadium is a capital expense and does not impact the operating budget.

We note that of the thirteen suggestions three yield a total of $475,000 in savings. Three suggestions – closing Parkway, contract renegotiations and early retirement –  could not yield any savings prior to July 1.  Increasing the gift cap and the number of volunteers do not yield any savings. Two suggestions are based on a hope of receiving funding from the state and federal governments; one cannot budget on hope. Reducing transportation costs and increasing class size will not be possible due to CDC regulations.

The schools will have additional costs due to the pandemic that are not in the budget: Increased transportation costs to support morning and afternoon sessions, cleaning costs, PPE for some personnel, and additional mental health costs. There is also the possibility of increased enrollment which has not been accounted for.

We are supportive of being efficient and reducing costs.  We are grateful for the thirteen budget suggestions however these suggestions do little to reduce the impact the $3 million cut will have on the direct education of students.

We appreciate the service of our BET and are grateful that the responsibility of safeguarding our Town’s financial health has been taken very seriously.  In that spirit, we hope that we can find a path forward to reduce the cut so it does not compromise the education of the 9,000 students in the Greenwich Public Schools.

Signed (as of noon, May 3),

Mary Ellen Markowitz, District 2
Martin Blanco, District 3
Steven Rubin, District 3 and Education Committee member
Allison Walsh, District 3
Javier Aleman, District 4
Lucy von Brachel, District 4
Jennie Baird, District 5
Lucy Krasnor, District 5
Hale McSharry, District 5 and Education Committee alternate member
Joan Thakor, District 5 and Education Committee member
Robert Cenci, District 6
Candace Garthwaite, District 6
Leander Krueger, District 6
Victoria Martin Young, District 6
Stephen Meskers, District 6
JoAnn O’Hara, District 6
Barbara O’Neill, District 6 and Education Committee member
Monica Prihoda, District 6
Gary Segal, District 6
David Snyder, District 6
Janet Stone McGuigan, District 6 and Education Committee alternate member
Debbie Appelbaum, District 7
Elizabeth Perry, District 7 and Education Committee alternate member
Hector Arzeno, District 8
Christine Larson Edwards, District 8
Jennifer Freitag, District 8 and Education Committee member
Dana Gordon, District 8
Laura Kostin, District 8
Janet Lee McMahon, District 8 and Education Committee alternate member
Cheryl Moss, District 8
Jonathan Perloe, District 8
Phyllis Alexander, District 9
Joanne Steinhart, District 9
Gerald Anderson, District 10
Mareta Hamre, District 10 and Education Committee member
Rachel Khanna, District 10
Nancy Marshall, District 10
Diana Singer, District 10
Louisa Stone, District 10
Joanna Swomley, District 10
Sophie Veronis, District 10
Svetlana Wasserman, District 10
Tracy Freedman, District 11
Karen Giannuzzi, District 11
Sue Khanna, District 11
Mary Connolly Flynn, District 12 and Education Committee member
Barbara Hindman, District 12