Submitted by RTM members Nancy Cooper (D5), Wynn McDaniel (D7), Patty Roberts (D5) and Jane Sprung (D10). (The opinions are our own and do not represent those of the RTM or any of its committees.)
Education is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children. Every year our public schools provide a quality education to almost 9,000 students. Our teachers are talented and well credentialed, and our student/teacher ratio is low.
But Quality is expensive. The $200 million operating cost of our public schools consumes slightly more than half of the Town’s operating budget, and equates to more than $22,000 per pupil.
When compared with a half dozen of our closest peer communities, Greenwich educational spending is the second highest per pupil, according to the CT Department of Education for 2018, the most recent year comparative data are available. Our teachers are also among the highest paid in the State.
In addition to the school operating budget, in the next fiscal year, the Town will spend $16 million on capital projects including Cardinal Field, digital learning, cybersecurity and other needed renovations and maintenance.
So, what has happened this year to create such a school budget debate? The COVID-19 Pandemic and the accompanying financial crisis have added an array of additional financial and operating challenges this year. We believe that the BET has been mindful of these economic uncertainties and the potential impact on Town residents. Responsibly, the BET kept the proposed budget for the Town departments essentially flat year to year and elected not to raise taxes. For the BOE, this meant it would receive $3 million less than what it had been seeking.
In order to help the BOE and school administrators work within the BET’s budget, it is not unreasonable to ask the teachers’ unions to help by deferring a portion of their contractual wage and benefit increases for next year. Under their existing union contract, teachers are scheduled this coming fiscal year to receive wage increases up to 2.9%. Additionally, teachers’ benefit costs will increase 7% this coming year. Foregoing some portion of these scheduled compensation increases for this fiscal year would almost bridge the BOE’s budget gap.
We support Schools Superintendent Dr. Jones and BOE Chair Bernstein in their efforts to seek other opportunities for cost savings. We would like to thank the Superintendent and staff for volunteering to defer their wage increases scheduled for next year.
Why not just raise taxes and fund the $3 million? The proposed budgets of the BOE and all the other town departments; Fire, Police, Parks & Rec, Public Works, Administration, budgets were kept flat to deliver a low mill rate and greater ability to respond to financial unknowns. Why is this important? Because of the uncertainties of the length and depth of COVID-19 and its negative economic impact on residents. These impacts are just starting to be seen.
As the year progresses, hopefully the economic uncertainties we confront may dissipate and result in great financial clarity for the Town. For now, national unemployment is expected to be as high as 20% in the next few months. Yesterday the Atlanta Fed projected a 53% drop in GDP for the 2nd Q, the largest quarterly drop since the Great Depression. Our Health & Human Services Department is starting to see a ramp-up of demand for food. In March 50 residents requested food aid, by April the number was 530. Other organizations like Neighbor-to-Neighbor and other non-profits are struggling to meet the rising needs of residents.
The budget of 20/21 represents a difficult balancing act between the continued provision of excellent education to our students and essential Town services in light of the great unknown. Hopefully, as the economic impact of this pandemic becomes clearer, the BET will be in a better position to re-visit many of the budget decisions they have made in this time of historic uncertainty. Until then, the current budget represents the sound financial approach that our Town needs. Nancy E. Cooper