O’Hagan: Racism, Thinly Veiled as Fiscal Conservatism, Results in Inadequate and Inequitable Investment in Public Schools

Submitted by Lorelei O’Hagan – Cos Cob resident

“Once the idea of the public included people of color, not only was the public no longer good, but white people no longer wanted public goods at all.”

– Heather McGee, author of The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone

The annual budget meetings in Greenwich are always hotly debated. At this same time in 2021 at the BET public hearing before the final vote, I asked, “Why are we so stingy toward ourselves, can’t we have nice things?” Sidewalks, sound barriers, modern school buildings, level play fields, bike paths, a North West Fire House, nope. Things that would collectively benefit the Town are largely neglected. Of course, we’re in the same position today.

I was inspired by a book called The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone in which the author, Heather McGhee, an economic policy expert, offers a metaphor to help us understand why Greenwich (and many suburbs like it) disinvests in its public spaces, at a great loss to the entire community. And why we’ve accepted this from the few who directly benefit from the status quo; those who don’t utilize the public schools and spaces.

The drained public pools
In the 1920s, 30s, 40s the government went on a nationwide building boom of tax funded public goods, among them, grand, resort style public pools across the US; there were over 2000 such pools. It was a show of grandeur and prosperity for a newly thriving middle class. For whites only. In CT and everywhere.

In the 1950s and 60s during the Civil Rights Era – when Black communities were gaining new rights to public spaces, in order to avoid integrating the public pools, most towns drained their pools rather than let Black families swim in them. All white families lost the pools, too. In CT and everywhere.

Since that time, in the name of racism, thinly veiled as fiscal conservatism, leadership in Greenwich has refused to adequately and equitably invest in public schools and have tried every means to justify it. This is not serving us. Our public schools are languishing, ceilings collapsing and fields standing idle because those in power don’t prioritize or use them.

It’s stripping our neighborhoods of collective benefits. And the wealth and opportunity gaps here have never been greater.

The BET, led by Republicans, forever, has carried forward the zero sum thinking of austerity for public goods. They will not fund the BOE budget in full for public school projects, this year, or any year. As PTA, parents, teachers, and other community members, including RTM based project committees, organize in support, the cuts become deeper and more precise. Remember that in 2021 funds for the design phase of urgent repairs and upgrades for Julian Curtiss Elementary school were cut, again.

Based on the approved Master Facilities plan, that school built in 1946, was at the top of the list for modernization, for ADA accessibility, air quality and safety projects. That delay affected all other projects on the list, which speaks for itself.

Today, the BET is again cutting the BOE capital budget requests for Old Greenwich and Central Middle Schools.

Town leadership is prolific in their self-defense and denial, but the poor state of our public buildings compared to private schools and spaces should be cause for concern and attention.

Cutting these public goods, in this diverse community, is not winning. It’s draining our pool.

The way forward is to view the Greenwich Public Schools and spaces as community
treasures and to channel our resources to the project pipeline with urgency. Some truth-
telling and history lessons are needed, as well.

Lorelei O’Hagan – Cos Cob resident