QUIGLEY: The Politics of the School Budget Debate and its Aftermath

Submitted by Dan Quigley, RTC chair

For the better part of the spring in Greenwich as the COVID virus swept into town like a dense fog, our community was engaged in a spirited though sometimes ugly debate about the Board of Education budget.

Those who agreed with the BET Republicans request that all Town departments, including the BOE maintain a flat budget for the upcoming fiscal year were cast as being “against schools” or “betraying children”. Those who disagreed positioned themselves on the moral high-ground and made a furious case that the BOE alone among all departments should be given a budget increase.

This simplistic and extremely disingenuous portrayal of the debate did a great disservice to what should have been an honest and perhaps, illuminating public discussion about budgeting through a crisis. It has also caused significant distress to many in our community.

What is equally disturbing is that as the discussion devolved into a mean-spirited campaign by some “pro school” proponents against those who disagreed with them, there was no effort by our School Superintendent or Board of Education leadership to calm the waters.

A simple letter or statement from the BOE or the Superintendent acknowledging that a unique financial environment existed, that they were hard at work on the budget and that our high-quality school system would endure would have gone a long way toward alleviating the stress felt by parents of GPS students and others in our community. Unfortunately, no such soothing words appeared and the acrimony continued.

What ensued was “Wanted” posters of Republican BET members (posted online), a concerted Social Media campaign to denigrate the opinions of proponents of the BET budget and a well organized letter writing effort in the local media to cast Republicans as “anti-education”.

The education system our Town rightly takes such great pride in is the result of years of financial support approved by BET’s, controlled by Republicans. To suddenly demonize the current Republican controlled BET and portray its Republican members as opponents of schools ignores the long istory of Republican support for our school system.
Meanwhile, BET Democrats contributed to the frenzy by further politicizing the debate.

Long serving BET member, Democrat Jeff Ramer wrote a letter in which he thanked parents for their letters of support. In addressing those who supported the BET Democrat’s position, he wrote; “there are jerks in the world, but the world is populated by the many more who wanted to stand up for you, and did”. The implication being, Republicans are jerks, and Democrats support you and your children.

On June 9th, BET Democrat’s penned a missive to “school supporters” in which they lamented the result of the June RTM vote that went against them. The letter stated that the RTM setback was due to “a vocal, well organized minority” that “once again blocked your views from getting the hearing they deserved.” This referred to an RTM meeting in which 75 odd speakers were able to voice their opinions, pro and con, that ended at 1 AM the next morning. No views were blocked. A fair hearing was heard.

It would strain credulity to assume that the thousands of emails sent to Republican BET members and the study stream of similar emails RTM members received compelling them to “Vote for schools” were not the result of a very well organized, carefully managed campaign.
I think we can all appreciate that being school Superintendent of the Greenwich Public School system is a great responsibility. It’s a tough job in a normal year and only more difficult during a pandemic (maybe that explains why Greenwich has had 14 Superintendent’s over the last twenty years). It is also a position that requires strong leadership skills and public speaking savvy. All public comments should be made with careful consideration and a sense of one’s audience. This is especially true in difficult economic times.

At her initial public Zoom meeting after the BET budget request, Superintendent Jones made her first comments about the budget.
Instead of signaling a sense of calm in challenging times she referred to the budget as “scary” that it was “unexpected” finally adding “I was shocked”. This did not instill confidence and only added to the anxiety of concerned

On the same call, BOE Democrat Christina Downy stated that the $3million budget gap would equate to laying off “Thirty staff, that’s a real number, and people need to know that”.

Again, very reassuring to concerned parents on the call. BOE Democrat Kathleen Stowe called the BET budget request “pretty draconian”.
More gasoline on the fire.

Thus, began a repetitive theme that continued for more than two months. Thirty to Fifty Teachers could lose their jobs. Essential school programs for our children would be cut. Class sizes would increase to 30-35 children. Of course, none of this happened. An interim appropriation request of $1.2million by the BOE was retracted after enough funds were identified from savings generated by schools’ closure from March to June. As for the $3million gap, it was covered by cuts to non-essential items and over $2.1million in savings from a renegotiated transportation contract.
District COO Sean O’Keefe deserves congratulations for his successful efforts in renegotiating the transport contract and finding ways to meet the budget request of the BET.

In the end, people did their jobs, identified areas where savings could be secured and achieved results. The BET guidelines were met. The refrain of imminent teacher firings, schools being “gutted” and our children being “betrayed” have evaporated into the ether. But this was ultimately not about schools. It was about politics.

These types of highly aggressive political tactics by Democrats will continue through the November elections. Just today, a letter was published in the Greenwich Time and Greenwich Free Press by Waste Free Greenwich founder Julie DesChamps in which she accuses the Greenwich community of committing “environmental racism” because the RTM overwhelmingly voted against implementing Pay-As-You-Throw (PAYT) as a way to close a waste management budget gap.

In her letter, Ms. DesChamps praises several BET Democrats and accuses Republicans of “legislative manipulation” and attempting to “gag proponents” of PAYT. She conveniently omits that all six BET Democrats signed a letter to the Greenwich Free Press in February opposing PAYT (Feb 26). When democracy doesn’t serve their purposes, they are quick to
accuse others of wrongdoing or blame the system.

Town Democrats have decided to take a cue from their National Party and local politics have begun to bear unfortunate similarities to the increasingly ugly national discourse. They are employing aggressive, confrontational strategies against those who don’t share their views on local issues. This is not good for the country, and it is equally ominous for Greenwich.
Our community has always been a bastion of personal civility, financial prudence and honest, civil debate on local issues. To stray too far from
these traditional characteristics is a course of action we may not soon recover from. The old adage “all politics are local” is true. But when it
comes to local politics, all debate should be civil.