Impassioned Voices at BET Hearing Focus on School Staffing, Aging Facilities, Fields

Themes emerged during the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) public hearing Thursday night on the town’s budget for 2018-2019, with the bulk of comments relating to the public schools.

Head of the teachers union, Carol Sutton asked the BET to approve the Board of Education budget, saying, “The board made the team sweat for every dollar before approving it,” she said. “Yes, it exceeds your value by .1%, but for sound educational reasons.”

Sutton acknowledged BET guidelines specify no new headcount, and just this week the six Republican BET members put out an editorial urging the BOE to find cuts, but, she said, “Discounting the 11.3 additional teachers to address increasing enrollment, that is exactly what the BOE budget does.”

As for head count, Sutton said the budget includes no new security guards, curriculum coordinators or facilities managers, despite demonstrated need. “It has no new assistant deans even thought these five individuals have literally saved students lives this year. And there will be no new social workers even though our social worker to student ratio is 300% above the guideline.”

Also Sutton said additional teachers do not mean additional pension liability since the Town does not contribute toward their pensions.

She described a line for increased health care costs for those additional staff as disingenuous because, she said, “Even if every teacher purchased town health care, it would never approach the savings to the Town that moving to the state health care plan brought about.”

New Lebanon School parent Clare Kilgallen advocated for the school budget, and said there had been  at least 25 items that didn’t make it into the budget that Superintendent Gildea had described as “fundamental.” Regarding the head count increase in the middle schools and Greenwich High School she said,”You can’t control for students coming into the school system.”

Both Dina Murphy from the Eastern Middle School PTA executive board and Kathleen Yu said proposed staff increases are not only needed, but are crucial to the schools growing population.

Also, Ms. Yu urged the BET to support the upgrades to Cardinal Field and the 15-year master facility plan to bring the town’s aging facilities up to code.

Janet Stone McGuigan from PTA Council pointed out that more residents would have attended the hearing but for a conflicting Board of Education meeting across town at Eastern. “Please consult the calendars of other departments when you schedule your meetings,” she asked.

As for head count, McGuigan said seven “high priority” positions had already been cut: four assistant academic deans at the high school and three curriculum administrators.

“Even as the entire community enjoys the benefits of the new performing arts center, it is clear that Greenwich lacks quality playing fields and that our aging facilities, including Cardinal stadium, need attention to address health, safety and security concerns,” McGuigan said.

Special Education Services
Harry Fisher, a former vice chair of the BET, said the Board of Education is failing in the area of special education services, especially at Greenwich High School. He said his case against the Town was decided by a  judicial decision in which the town settled at a significant cost to tax payers.

“The solutions offered anyone with special needs at GHS are designed to dumb down the instruction in order to get the student over the finish line to graduation. The result is that students are denied a free appropriate public education,” he said.

Another parent of a special education student said her experience had been “a battle” and that  she was told by a special education monitor, “The role of special education is to exit your child.”

Mindy Smith said she had learned that “the official method of operation for the special education team is to fight services, outplace, and if all else fails, to go to court.”

She said the stories of the two earlier speakers were not anomalies, and that a member of the special education team recently told her, ‘You’re lucky, we could make you sue us for it.’

She asked the BET to closely examine the special education leadership in Greenwich.

“For those of you looking to cut the budget, the nearly $5 million budgeted for litigation seems like a good place to start,” Smith said.

Aging School Facilities, Shortage of Fields
GHS PTA co-presidents Maria Merrill Anne Pfetsch also emphasized investing in the upkeep of school facilities.

“Cardinal Stadium has long been neglected. The bleachers are in major disrepair. There are zero bathrooms facilities, and no accessibility for the handicapped,” they said, adding that the GHS locker rooms need attention. “The toilets are in disrepair. The showers are structured in a group format that is inappropriate for today’s teams, and the boys locker room has a serious plumbing issue.”

Finally, the GHS PTA presidents said the district needs more and better quality playing fields. “We support the renovation of the Central Middle School field and expenditures to maintain the fields at Greenwich High School. ….”Greenwich has some catch-up to do. We’ve deferred investments for too long.”

Domestic Abuse Services
YWCA CEO Mary Lee Kiernan and Director of Domestic Abuse Services Meredith Gold advocated for continued funding for their programs for domestic abuse services and programs in schools for preventing teen dating violence and teaching what healthy relationships look like.

“Domestic violence is the number one violent crime in Greenwich. One in four girls will experience physical violence in her lifetime,” Kiernan said, adding that the YWCA provides age appropriate education in the schools and facilitates YNET at the high school.

Upgrading a Middle school Field
A group of familiar faces from the residential neighborhood surrounding Central Middle School each took their three minutes to object to that school’s field being studied for upgrades in order for GHS athletes to have an illuminated field to practice on.

“They’re always in a rush to do things,” Warren Silver said of the BOE. “I find it completely remarkable that they went ahead and figured it would cost the town $1.5 million for late start time, but failed to consider that it would have an effect on daylight and sports.”

“Now they’re coming back to the town saying that because of late start time, which will only cost $1.5 million, now we need to spend another $5 to $10 million on fields so the kids can play sports.”

Mr. Silver said the BOE should arrange to rent fields because the intense shortage of fields intensifies mainly a period of weeks, starting with daylight savings in the fall when it gets dark earlyier.

School Safety
Paul Calligan said he was concerned about school safety at Greenwich High School, describing the school as “porous” and having insufficient security.

“If our attitude is that it can’t happen here in Greenwich, our community and our leaders are being naive or ignorant,” he said, adding that said he’d consulted professionals who advised that GHS needs three or four school resource officers and a police substation on Hillside Road. “We do not want Greenwich to make the headline news for a tragedy that has happened in so many other communities.”

Interference with Greenwich’s Internal Auditors
Steve Bruce said he was alarmed to read in Greenwich Time about political interference with the internal town auditor’s work auditing the town clerk’s office. In his article, Bob Horton said rigorous internal audits show “town departments routinely ignoring town cash handling policies, and engaging in behavior that lends itself to widespread fraud and corruption.”

Mr. Bruce said to protect the public good, the BET must rely on clean internal audits. “It should alarm everyone that draft reports are going to unelected officials,” Mr. Bruce said. “That’s alarming and scary. It’s really important because we can’t trust the information if there’s going to be political influence by town officials on those auditors.”

Combining Leadership of Conservation Commission and Inland Wetlands an Watercourses Agency
Recently retired director of the Conservation Commission Denise Savageau advocated the Conservation Commission’s recommendation for funding three full time staff, resulting in an increase of 10 hours a week. She said that reflected making a part time position a full time job. She said that position constantly turns over, which means constantly having to train a new person.

Savageau said the commission’s work load has increased and the Town has missed opportunities. Similar towns including Fairfield and West Hartford are leading the way in energy efficiency and alternative energy, and work on water supply planning is becoming critical.

“To protect land values in Greenwich you need to protect the water supply, and that is a key part of the work load increase,” Savageau said. “Resiliency planning in terms of climate change and sea level rise is where the conservation commission has taken the lead, in addition to protecting the Town’s infrastructure.”

She noted that the First Selectman’s budget seeks to reduce staff hours by consolidating and eliminating the Conservation director’s position and the Inland Wetlands position and creating a position for a Director of Environmental Affairs, and reducing staff hours collectively by 25 hours.

“As the former conservation director I’m not sure how they’re going to get the work done,” she said.

Public Relations Campaign for Greenwich
Sabine Schoenberg of the First Selectman’s Economic Advisory Committee urged the BET to fund $30,000 for the town’s portion of the public relations campaign, which she pointed out is largely funded by individuals and local businesses.

She said the town’s image suffered from a comment by Barry Sternlicht that, ‘You can’t give away a house in Greenwich.’

“It raced around the globe in four days casting a false negative image on Greenwich,” she said of Sternlicht’s comment.

As for the PR campaign, Schoenberg said it has taken six months to for the PR agency to lay the ground work for the effort, but that they recently dissuaded a reporter from Forbes Magazine from writing about an exodus of billionaires from Town and to instead convinced him to write a positive story. (The story has yet to be published.)

Molly Saleeby, who said her family has paid taxes in Greenwich for 52 years, said a PR campaign was unnecessary. She urged the BET to focus on upkeep of school facilities.

“I don’t think we need to spend $30,000 on a public relations campaign. Greenwich is known internationally,” Saleeby said. “That $30,000 could go for new doors to the pool at Greenwich High School. The doors are rusty and it’s embarrassing.”

Flooding and Drainage Issues

Three-term RTM member Peter Quigley, who was formerly on the Budget Overview Committee, Land Use Committee and Harbor Management Commission, described flooding and drainage issues as the Town’s ‘elephant in the room.’

He said it doesn’t take experts to see the Town’s drainage, flooding and contamination issues. He said there are repeated issues with municipal improvements being planned on contaminated public sites.

“This involves long term investment in capital projects. This is a $250 to $300 Million elephant in the room.”

Quigley said Dept of Public Works Director Amy Siebert in 2016 admitted the town doesn’t have the capacity to handle sewer and storm drains, referring to the reason a massive 355 unit apartment complex submitted under the 8-30g affordable housing statute was denied for the Post Road Iron Works site.

Quigley said on the town website there are $200 million in projects recommended by consultant Camp Dresser & McKee. He said that does not include another possible $50 million for North Mianus, and costs of remediation.

“This is not a three or four year $3 or $4 million project. If you want to prevent the flooding, the drainage, the contamination issues to be remediated, you must start to plan $15 million in addition to the $15 million you plan for your sanitary sewers.”

Quigley said storm drains are separate from sanitary sewers. “You’re probably funding $20 million a year over ten years to deal with sanitary sewers. You need $15 million a year for a parallel storm drain system, because all storm water does is flood the sanitary sewer system.”

“You don’t want to consider long term funding,” Quigley said. “But to prevent contamination and remediation you have to address sanitary sewers and storm water management.”

Quigley pointed out that Greenwich floods with about ½” of rain and that the town is mandated to close its beaches each time that happens.

“There are systems in this town that can’t take a one-year storm, a two-year storm, five-year storm or a 10-year storm. These systems break down. …It’s a nine-watershed, townwide problem.”

BET chair Jill Oberlander thanked everyone for participating in the hearing and invited the public to return to town hall on Monday, March 26 at 4:00pm to hear the BET budget decision meeting.

See also: Republican BET Members Share Budget Discussions and Priorities 

Controversy Brews over Tesei’s Plans to Combine Oversight of Wetlands and Conservation

Sparks Fly for Iron Works Application at Late Night Wetlands Meeting in Greenwich

As Proposed, 355-Unit Apartment Building at Iron Works Site Looms Large, Questions Remain