LETTER: Just the Facts – Impossible to Justify Cuts to Greenwich Public Schools

Letter to the editor submitted by Frank Altomaro, Michael Bodson, Kevin Dolan, George Dutile, Joe Femenia, Jeffrey Goldberger, Scott Griffith, Stephen Kampf, Marko Kostovic, Ante Kusurin, Ed Lerum, Michael McMahon, Matthew Maciejewski, Edward Mendelsohn, Robert Nizielski, Thomas O’Connor, Duke Perrucci, Mark Ranta, Andrew Reid, Stefan Savov, Torsten Sippel, Marc Staal, Tom Tidgwell, David Ward, James Waters, Wayne Yu

We write as a group of fathers with children, either currently or in the past, in Greenwich schools. We have varied political affiliations, career experiences, and views for the future. In addition to concerns
about education for our own children and other children in town, one thing we have in common is that we believe it is in Greenwich’s interest to have a strong public school system.

We are concerned about the Board of Estimate and Taxation’s (BET) poor decision to cut $3 million from the Board of Education’s (BOE) 2020-2021 school budget request. In addition to this, there is a $1.5 million budget shortfall due to larger than expected out-of-district SPED costs mandated for the upcoming year.

There has been a lot of misleading information presented to attempt to justify this decision. To ensure elected members of the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) have all the information, we present the following facts:

• Members of town boards claim that Greenwich’s economy and revenues will be severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Each of us has seen clear impacts on our families, our jobs, and even our financial condition. That said, the US unemployment rate released June 5, 2020 was 13.3%, far better than the 20% doomsday scenario described by some members of the
BET, BOE, and RTM. In May 2020, approximately 2.5 million jobs were added – by far the highest one-month gain in history. We also know that in the financial crisis of 2008-2009 that Greenwich collected nearly 99% of its anticipated property tax revenue. Further, town revenues for FY 2020
are well ahead of budget and expenses are expected to finish approximately 2% behind budget, resulting in millions of surplus income by the end of June. Taking all of these considerations together, plus an influx of new residents, it is reasonable to believe that Greenwich’s financial position will be much stronger than presented.

• We know from Town Comptroller Peter Mynsarski that the Town of Greenwich currently has a rainy day fund of $63 million that has been set aside for use in a crisis. The BET has proposed using millions of this fund in the coming year to pay for various expenses but is unwilling to give
a penny more to the Greenwich Public Schools. As taxpayers who have paid into this rainy day fund, it makes no sense that our public schools, the greatest portion of the town budget, should receive nothing from the rainy day fund. When you consider that the COVID-19 pandemic is likely a short-term crisis and not a prolonged downward slump caused by persistent or irreversible economic trends, using the rainy day fund is even more logical.

• The BET has said that it would like to cut the mill rate by 0.79% to ease the burden on town property owners. To completely fund the BOE’s budget request, which came in within the BET’s January 2020 guidelines, it would cost the median Greenwich taxpayer approximately $116 in property taxes in the coming year. By contrast, with only 1,000 school teachers/staff, it would cost each of them considerably more to take a pay freeze, which many of the budget cut proponents are demanding.

• Greenwich teachers are relatively well-paid because the cost of living in Greenwich is high and the town is trying to incentivize good teachers from other towns to work here. That said, even at current salary levels, no teacher in Greenwich is able to afford anything more than a very modest home in town. Compared to nearby Westchester towns with a similar high cost of living, Greenwich’s teacher pay scale is lower.

• Some members of the BET and RTM have produced misleading information that neighboring peer towns have also cut their school budgets as a result of COVID-19. While many towns have adjusted their original budget requests, we know from town documents that Darien, Westport,
Fairfield, and New Canaan have all decided to increase their operating school budgets year-over-year. Specifically, when health benefit costs are removed from other town budgets, each of those towns are increasing their budget for FY 2021 by 2-3%. Removing health benefit costs highlights the portion of funding that will impact the quality and level of school services and programs. Greenwich is the lone town among its peers that is not doing so.

• For the past decade, Greenwich has followed a rigid guideline of 2% increases in school funding per year. Other towns, like those above, have approached budget increases with greater agility to maintain a desired level of excellence. Their annual budget increases are often at levels of 3%
and 4%. This disparity means that Greenwich is not keeping pace with fixed costs, contractual obligations, and mandated costs legally obligated through FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education). Further, the 2% guideline inhibits proper funding adjustments in the event of student population growth. It shows why our public schools are no longer first in the state and is one of the major reasons the BET’s decision this year is so controversial. Other towns realize that properly investing in public education is a strategic, competitive imperative and has a direct impact on property values. So should Greenwich.

• Maintaining a level services budget in the coming year would require a 2.62% increase to the public schools. The BOE and Superintendent already had to find efficiencies, reductions, and deferrals to get to the BET’s original guidance of a 2.0% increase for Fiscal Year 2020-2021. For example, Professional Learning and Curriculum Development programs were cut in 2019-2020 and remained cut in the pre-COVID 2020-2021 budget. These types of cuts have been a common occurrence since the rigid 2% guidance was implemented and they have compounded for a decade.

• From the 2013-2014 school year to the 2017-2018 school year (the most recent data from the Connecticut Department of Education), Greenwich’s Per Pupil Expenditures grew by a total of 4% while Westport, Darien, New Canaan, Fairfield, Weston, Wilton, and West Hartford grew by 16% – 22%. Greenwich’s public schools are falling behind.

• In reverting to the previous year’s budget, the BET ignored best practices for municipal financing. According to the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA), across the board cuts are considered “near term tactics” that require “extreme caution”. The BET did not bother with many of the “primary” near term tactics or best practices suggested by the GFOA.

Taken in total, it makes no sense to us that Greenwich should be placing such an onerous burden on our public schools. Our children are the ones who will pay for it – and the BET will own any resulting education, public health, economic, and property value impacts of this poor decision.

We strongly urge the RTM to support the Education Committee’s SOMR. As we all know, the schools are going to be required to do much more in the coming year. There are clear economic and social benefits of investing in our children’s education and we encourage you to do what is in the best interest of our town.

Sources of Facts Cited in this Letter:

Unemployment Statistics as of May 31, 2020: US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf

Population Influx statistics as of June 5, 2020 according to Greenwich Multiple Listing Service data

Republican BET Members claims on Unemployment Statistics: Greenwich Time, April 30, 2020,

Property Tax Collections in 2008-2009: Town of Greenwich Comprehensive Annual Financial Report,

Rainy Day Fund Value: Data from Town Comptroller’s Office,

Mill Rate: Town of Greenwich Proposed Budget 2020-2021,

Median Property Value in Greenwich: $1,840,000 based on median home sales YTD, according to Greenwich Multiple Listing Service data.

Greenwich Public School Budget increases FY 2012-2021 (p 22):

Neighboring Town Budget Increases:

• Darien Board of Finance:

• Westport Board of Finance: https://www.westportct.gov/home/showdocument?id=24868

• Fairfield Board of Finance:

• New Canaan Board of Finance:

Free Appropriate Public Education: US Department of Education,

Programs cut in Greenwich Public Schools in Fiscal 2019-2020 (p 4):

Connecticut Department of Education: https://portal.ct.gov/SDE/Fiscal-Services/Connecticut-Public-School-Expenditures-Report

GFOA: Government Finance Officers Association, https://gfoa.org/fiscal-first-aid

Social and Economic Benefits of Public Education: https://www.elc-pa.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/BestInvestment_Full_Report_6.27.11.pdf