Peter Bernstein’s last meeting presiding over the Board of Education as its chair was last Thursday. After eight years on the board, and its chair since 2017, Mr. Bernstein, a Republican, who has a full time job as an attorney for Mastercard, is ready for a break.
Likely a short break.
Bernstein started volunteering as a class parent when his first son entered kindergarten. From there he became PTA president at Hamilton Avenue School, where his SONS magneted in during Pre-K and stayed through second grade. His two sons completed elementary school at their neighborhood school, Julian Curtiss, followed by Central Middle School. Today both are enrolled at Greenwich High School.
With his BOE days over, Bernstein said instead of focusing on 9,000 students he’ll focus more on his boys, one of whom is a junior looking at colleges.
Bernstein, who first successful ran for BOE back in 2013, was not endorsed by his party in 2017. Instead, petitioned his way onto the ballot and won with the most votes in a competitive three way race for two Republican openings on the board.
During his eight years on the school board, he saw a number of Superintendents come and go, including Bill McKersie, Sal Corda, Jill Gildea and Ralph Mayo.
Today, Dr. Toni Jones, who was the 14th superintendent in 20 years to lead the district when she arrived in July 2019, appears to have ended what was often described as a revolving door.
Bernstein said Dr. Jones’ strong leadership led to the renewal of her contract.
“Toni’s contract was renewed in the spring and she has at least another three years here,” Bernstein said. “It was a recognition of the real work and foundation that she’s laid. Our success is truly tied to Toni.”
Reflecting on the challenges and accomplishments of his two terms, Bernstein said eight years was a long time to serve, but he was grateful to have had the opportunity.
He said the pandemic was a challenge, but Dr. Jones’ focus remained on the students and achievement, overseeing continued growth of curriculum and having the right staff in place to manage for the future. He added that the superintendent and her team understood the importance of never being complacent about student achievement.
“The longer the superintendent is here, the larger her impact will be,” Bernstein said. “I don’t think people in the community understand how difficult a job it is – on top of managing all the academics and all the operational issues, she has to oversee the budget and the capital process. It is a monumental task.”
“I don’t think she hears enough positive feedback from the community,” he added. “We tend to pay attention to the squeaky wheel as opposed to celebrating our successes.”
About those squeaky wheels, Bernstein said negativity drives people away.
“In politics people have to want to run for office,” he said.
Bernstein said it had been interesting to serve during a time of great division in the country.
“It’s even come to Greenwich,” he continued. “My hope is that we’ll return to a time of civility where all voices can be heard and acknowledged, but not stop the process. It’s a difficult time to be a school board member, nationally as well as locally, but we are community of volunteers and and we need good people to step forward.”
The outgoing chair elaborated on the challenge presented by the district’s aging school buildings.
“We’ve not made the investment as a community we should,” he said. “We’ve done a good job in a few instances replacing buildings that had major challenges.”
Bernstein listed completed projects starting with Hamilton Avenue School, which was nearly a century old before it was replaced, and not until mold sickened staff and students. A new Glenville School replaced one built in the 1970s during the open classroom movement, which Bernstein said proved not to be conducive to modern teaching and learning.
Bernstein, who was a member of the New Lebanon School Building Committee, noted the replacement of the Byram neighborhood’s 1950s-era building was necessary because it was simply too small. The new school opened in 2019. It was on time and on budget.
“I learned a lot on that building committee,” he said. “It is a model for all school and town projects and how they should be conducted. We worked with the construction manager at risk, and that drove the timeline and enabled us to get the students into the new building as soon as possible.”
Bernstein noted that the architect on that project received an award for his building design and the building also received LEED Gold status for its efficiency.
Recently, at GHS, where the 50-year-old bleachers in Cardinal Stadium were condemned in 2019, then propped up with rented scaffolding, have been replaced. (There is a ribbon cutting scheduled for Saturday, Nov 13.)
“The town could really benefit from a proper capital planning process similar to what the schools have done through the master facility plan,” Bernstein said.
As for capital projects, Bernstein said that in 2018 work was completed on a schools masters facilities plan, which identified buildings with the greatest needs, including Julian Curtiss School, Old Greenwich School and Riverside School, which he said jumped to the top of the list.
He said all three have lack of ADA accessibility, air quality issues, and safety & security challenges.
“The board had requested more funds to begin work on those projects, only to be told by the Board of Estimate and Taxation to do one project at a time,” he said.
Bernstein said that unfortunately, the BET even slowed that down by not funding the Julian Curtiss project to continue architecture and engineering work last year.
“So we now have two projects stacked up this year that appear in the superintendent’s recommended capital budget,” he continued. “Beyond that, Central Middle School has structural challenges that need to be solved.”
“To continue to operate that building will require a significant investment, while money would be better spent on replacing the building,” Bernstein added. “The superintendent has proposed moving that project up to within the next five years, putting it on a similar time frame to the three elementary schools.”
“The town really needs to come together and determine a capital process to move these important projects forward,” Bernstein added.
Asked about the concerns expressed about declining school enrollment, which came up in recent BET and BOE candidate debates, he said enrollment was cyclical.
He said enrollment drives class sizes more at the elementary school, and in the past six years the district had eliminated 10 homerooms.
“If you look at the superintendent’s budget presentation, we had a chart showing enrollment for the past 40 years, and you can see our all-time high was 11,000 students – it goes up and down and that will continue to be the case.”
“Most recently we had graduation classes of 700-plus students, and incoming kindergarten classes are a lot less than that,” he continued. “We will see birth rates go up again, and we will see enrollment go up again.”
“It’s something the administration and the board will continue to track, and it will drive budgets,” he said. “At the same time enrollment goes down, the number of students with needs will continue to rise. That’s a big driver of our budget. We’re gotten better at identifying students with needs through the birth-to-3 program, and we’re federally obligated to provide pre-K to students with special needs.”
As for remarks made during candidate debates about disappointing test scores, Bernstein said the district tracked achievement from both a long-term view and a short-term view.
“We use a lot of measures to get a sense of whether students are where they ought to be,” he said. “And people manipulate the data to tell the story they want to tell.”
Bernstein said there had been an over-reliance on test data from the past year, which was vastly effected by Covid.
“Of course we look at (last year’s test data), and it’s helpful to identify any gaps the students have from the last year and a half, but it does not tell the longer term story….A lot of effort has gone into working with staff to understand how to better utilize data from multiple tests rather than just the one state run test.”
Bernstein said while he looks forward to a break from volunteering, he is considering future opportunities.
More important, he is satisfied with his accomplishments.
“When I went in, I wanted to leave the schools in better shape then when I found them,” he said. “I think that’s the case.”
The new board will be sworn in on Wednesday, Nov 17. At that point they will elect new officers: Chair, Vice Chair and Secretary.