RTM Disappoints Public School Fans, Votes to Wait til Fall for Second Read on Education SOMR

Monday’s RTM budget meeting, which took six hours in order to accommodate everyone who signed up to speak, was held virtually on Zoom and broadcast on GCTV, rather than in person because of Covid-19.

On the eve of the GHS graduation of the class of 2020, the item that hundreds of residents tuned in to follow was an amended Sense of the Meeting Resolution (SOMR) on the Greenwich Public School budget.

There were about 3-1/2 hours of discussion on the SOMR, and at midnight the meeting was extended from a hard end until 1:00am to let everyone speak rather than continue on Tuesday night at 8:30pm (after GHS graduation)

Close to 1:00am members voted in favor of not waving the rules requiring a second read on the SOMR.

That meant the RTM will not return to the issue until late September, a de facto no vote on the SOMR.

The amended SOMR was championed mostly by public school families in response to the proposed 2020-21 budget that keeps the schools budget flat from the previous year. The amended SOMR originated in the RTM Education Committee and was drafted by Janet McMahon and Mareta Hamre.

Proponents of the SOMR said that given schools fixed costs, the proposed budget represented a cut of $3 million. Opponents said there was no cut, but rather no increase.

Potentially on the chopping block are 15 media assistant jobs, new books for libraries, grade 2 ALP and foreign language classes, among other items.

Speakers were each allotted two minutes, and it seemed there was no middle ground on the SOMR.

Before discussion on the SOMR, there was the vote on the budget overall, which BET chair Republican Michael Mason described as a deviation from typical years and guidelines due to the pandemic.

Mr. Mason talked about finding operating efficiencies in managing town services, and said, “All leadership will be challenged more than ever.”

He warned that Section 25 of the town charter provides that if the RTM did not adopt a budget before June 14, the recommended BET budget would automatically take effect.

That was not the case. The RTM voted to adopt the overall budget in a vote of 158 in favor, 61 opposed, with four abstentions.

Before the vote on suspending the rules requiring a second reading of the revised SOMR, there was a vote on its amended version, which passed with 119 in favor, 94 opposed and 8 abstentions (the RTM has 230 members).

Pressing on, comments alternated back and forth between those in favor and those opposed of the modified SOMR.

Those in favor argued that the education budget is different than other town budgets, and that maintaining excellent public schools was key in attracting families to Greenwich.

Lucia Jansen of the Budget Overview Committee said that in the context of the pandemic the BET’s proposed budget was “responsible.”

She said while her committee was split on the SOMR, many noted the pandemic might have an economic impact equivalent to that of the Great Depression.

Jansen said that even some of the BOC members had lost jobs and had pay cuts. “These members would prefer negotiations with the teachers,” she said.

The revised SOMR came out of the RTM Education Committee, passing 8-4-0.

Janet McMahon, a principal proponent of the SOMR said the BET had quietly started putting public schools “on a starvation diet 10 years ago.”

“The SOMR is 10 years in the making. Our breaking point came in the form of a pandemic,” she said. “Instead of investing in schools, the BET decided to double down.”

“If a union agreement is not reached, a large scale teacher layoff is imminent,” she warned. “

“Beginning in fiscal year 2012, the BET mandated that the BOE was not to exceed 2% in their operating expenses, knowing well its contractual obligations and fixed costs were well above 2% every year. Thus, to meet these austere guidelines the BOE has had to sustain cuts year after year, until finally these compounded cuts have brought us to where we are now – a woefully underfunded budget with a $1.5 milion shortfall in special education and 90% of our operating budget going to contractual obligations and fixed costs.  We simply have no more fat to cut except our teachers.”

Janet McMahon

Oliver Basham of the Finance Committee said of Greenwich’s peer towns, only Weston spends more for public schools.

“Peter Bernstein (BOE chair) was asked if the BOE reached out to union leaders. He said there had been discussions, but there had been no response from union leaders,” Basham said, adding that collectively, teachers were set to receive 3% raises, with many getting 4 to 5% step increases.

Cathy Whitaker said there had been references to Draconian cuts. “I looked it up. How could a flat budget be Draconian? It means ‘excessively harsh, severe and cruel.’ There is no universe where 0% is Draconian. There’s a lot of uproar over nothing.”

Katie Yu said the loss of $3 million was indeed Draconian.

“I resent an implication that comments are scripted,” Yu said. “The tidal wave of opposition was from families who rose up from their own volition….these cuts are not the will of our constituents. Listen when the community speaks en masse.”

Mike Warner said the budget was a statement of the budget proponents.

“Why are we reducing critical services to our town while at the same giving ourselves a tax cut?” Warner asked. “If you have a very large house and send your kids to private schools, then you’re a winner.”

“But if you have a normal house and send your kids to public school and use some town services, in this budget you lose,” he added. “This is by design. The BET has been starving our schools for decades. Our average school was built in 1953.”

“Sadly, this item highlights how our leaders have exploited the temporary impact of this pandemic, which we will recover from quite quickly – most people estimate about a year – and they’re using that to make permanent deep cuts in services that our citizens use.”

Mike Warner

Dan Ozizmir disputed the assertion that removing $3million from the proposed schools budget would result in a tax cut.

“The reason we have a lower mill rate is because the RTM approved tipping fees, and that reduced our tax about 1%. Without the tipping fees we would have had flat tax. So there really is not a tax cut. Most residents will see some increase in their bill from their hauler…We should be proud of the BET because we are funding the best funded school system in Connecticut.”

– Dan Ozizmir

GHS PTA president Terry Lamantia said the proposed reduction to the BOE budget came after years of stringent 2% increases she described as unsustainable.

“Our schools should not be where we make cuts, but where we invest,” she said, adding that in light of the pandemic and thousands of students at home “distance learning,” that the needs of students going forward would be great.

“The PTA can’t do it alone. We need the support of the community,” Lamantia added.

Lucia Jansen argued that there had not been adequate time for the RTM committees to thoroughly vet the SOMR.

“Our schools are the number one district in our comparable districts DRG-A A and DRG-B. When people talk about (schools) not being ADA compliant, look at the $45 million auditorium (at Greenwich High School). …Look at the BOE priorities!”

– Lucia Jensen

Steven Rubin said thousands of residents had demanded action.

“The opponents are looking for a sneaky way of stopping this. I resent that,” he said. “Concerning the amendment, please pass it. There’s 460 people here at this meeting, let them be part of this for crying out loud.”

Rubin said the support for the SOMR was “not from a small group of radicals.” Nor, he said was it organized by extreme groups. “It’s a representation that goes across party lines.”

“(The BET) refusal to compromise prompted the SOMR. The majority party is trying to turn this into a political issue. We just want to provide the best quality education. We sent the message we want quality education and we have thousands of upset, concerned parents.”

– Steven Rubin

Brian Raney said, “One thing that is clear is that the BOE is not a well oiled machine.”

He listed incidents requiring capital expenses including floods at the Greenwich High School MISA and science wing, and the Julian Curtiss School roof, which all required interim appropriations. He said there were were promises of busing efficiencies that had not materialized, and that that tax payers did not deserve paying for “wasted money on litigation” for special education.

James Waters, who has penned a series of letters to the editor objecting to the $3million cut to the schools budget warned, “Our town is watching the RTM like never before.”

“The school budgets are being cut to fund a tax cut for some of the wealthiest,” he continued, adding, “Thousands of Republicans support the SOMR.”

Waters said he’d served in the Bush White House as a staffer in the Office of Management and Budget.

“I’ve reviewed the financials. We can afford this SOMR. Our town’s financial position is strong and not significantly weakened by covi-19,” he said.

“The SOMR came with heavy rhetoric: ‘There are thousands of residents,’ ‘It’s a tidal wave.’ “I have not seen a groundswell, and I’ve not seen a petition with 3,000 signatures.”

– Michael Spilo

Michael Spilo said the stock market was not reflective of the economy overall and unemployment was high. “We should not be responding to what the Dow Jones Industrial average is doing.”

Tog Pearson condemned all the fighting, saying the budget process had to factor in impacts Covid 19.

“I’ve always respected the budget process but this year with Covid 19 The rancor this has fostered is frightening to new residents. Please stop this and support the process. If a correction is necessary, it can be done later. Vote no on the SOMR.”

– Tog Pearson

Joanna Swomley supported the SOMR. “The better our schools, the higher our property values. We aren’t ADA compliant. I’m embarrassed. We’ve already cut our programs to the bone and you keep cutting and cutting? We care about education, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the right thing to do economically.”

Rachel Khanna wondered, “Have we asked any other unions to sacrifice? How about police and fire unions? Why not them? Why hold student education hostage?”

RTC chair Dan Quigley said that in a pandemic year which might result in a global depression, the BET did the right thing.

Speaking against the SOMR, Quigley said it had not been properly vetted and that the SOMR arose from the PTA.

“This is a debate that has been going on in this town primarily because the PTA has been weaponized. They have been activated in an organized and systemic way. We’ve heard about schools crumbing. We have heard about schools collapsing. That is impossible.”

– RTC chair Dan Quigley

Of the $3 million in question for the schools budget he said it reflected just 1.5% of a $200 Million budget.

“There is not one organization in this country, not one business in the world that would not be able to function properly if it reduced its budget by 1.5%,” he said.

Quigley said given the pandemic, “What the BET did was conservative, responsible and correct.”

Besides, he said, since the budget was passed earlier in the meeting, the SOMR was “redundant.”

“We’ve heard about schools crumbing. That is impossible,” Quigley said. “None of the funds tonight the $3 million has anything to do with Covid. These were requests made pre-pandemic.”

“The BET did it with every other department in town and those departments have acquiesced and did not made a stink,” Quigley said. “But because people have been locked up in their homes for 2.5 months and needed to get energy out, this is the result. Two months of continuous threats to RTM members. ‘If you don’t vote or children or schools, you will be remembered.'”

Cathy Steele said she had taken a pay cut herself, but supported the SOMR, saying, “the right and ethical thing is to honor the contracts.”

“We can only accept, reject or reduce. A SOMR sends a message that if we could do more we should – it is one of the best things we can do,” she added.

Alex Popp, a Greenwich Public School teacher urged people to vote against the SOMR.

“It (the SOMR) has consumed countless hours. It’s divided the town neighbor against neighbor. The tone is unprecedented and mean spirited,” Popp said. “It’s supposed to support teachers but it’s counter productive. We’re it the middle of a pandemic. …We don’t know if we’ll be in school in the fall or have a hybrid (distance learning and in-school) Vote against SOMR. Greenwich has a great record on interim appropriations.”

Clare Kilgallen supported the SOMR, saying it represented “a sentiment” and was non binding.

“The BET will do what it will do,” Kilgallen said. “This is the only way you can give voice to the clamoring of thousands of people who since the actions were taken on the budget have continued consistent cries to be heard…People were not heard when the public hearing took place. There was no opportunity because the cuts were not declared at that time.”

Close to the 1:00am deadline, there was a vote on a motion to suspend rules requiring a second read, which was de facto rejection of the SOMR.

There were 120 favor and 88 opposed. The motion failed because it didn’t receive the required 2/3.

That meant it would not be voted on Tuesday night, but rather will appear on the RTM call in September.

“Absent any special conditions arising over summer, our next gathering is Sept 21,” said RTM moderator Tom Byrne, adding, “My words of advice as we head off into the summer, proceed at your own risk.”

Vote on whether to suspend rules requiring second read.

District 1

Andrea Anthony: Yes
Katharine Ashworth: Yes
Joshua Brown: Yes
Carl Carlson: No
Ed Dadakis: No
Laura Feda: No
Alison Ghiorse: Yes
Dean C Goss: No
Judith Goss: Abstain
Alanna Hynes: No
Frederick Lee: –
William Lewis: No
Elizabeth Sanders: Yes
Ryan Oca: Yes
Daniel Quigley: No
Robert Robins: –
Helma Varga: No
Marla Weston: –
Lihong Zhang: No

District 2

Michael Basham: No
Duncan Burke: No
Nancy Burke: No
Donald Conway: Yes
Jessica DelGuercio: Yes
Laura Gladstone: No
Jill Kelly: Yes
Michelle Kosson: No
Katherine Lobalbo: Yes
Mary Ellen Markowitz: Yes
Wilma Nacinovich: No
Aldo Pascarella: No
Eileen Toretta: No
Erika Walsh: No

District 3

Louise Bavis: Yes
Martin Blanco: No
Elias Judd Cohen: Yes
Thomas Conelias: No
Ed Lopez: No
Rosalind Nicastro: No
Sylvester Pecora: Yes
Adam Rothman: Yes
Steven Rubin: Yes
Allison Walsh: Yes

District 4

Javier Aleman: Yes
Ronald Carosella: –
Andrea Casson: Yes
Liz Eckert: –
Robert McKnight: Yes
Maria Popp: No
Alex Popp: No
Romulo Samaniego: Yes
Diego Sanchez: Yes
J Schaffner-Parenell: Yes
Ryan Smith: Yes
Samarpana Tamm: Yes
John Thompson: No
Robert Tuthill: –
Donald Vitti: Yes
Lucy von Brachel: Yes
Bonnie Zeh: Yes

District 5

Jennifer Baird: Yes
Joseph Benoit: No
Edward Broadhurst: Yes
Nancy Cooper: No
Stephen Dolan: No
Alison Icy Frantz: No
Lucy Krasnor: Yes
Hale McSharry: Yes
Paul Olmsted: No
Danyal Ozizmir: No
Christopher Parker: No
Bruce Pflug: No
Patty Roberts: No
Allison Rogers: No
Ashley Smith: No
Joan Thakor: Yes
Peter Van Duyne: No
Catherine Whitaker: No

District 6

Thomas Byrne –
Marilyn Cahn: Yes
Robert Cenci: Yes
Carol Ducret: No
Candace Garthwaite: Yes
Coline Jenkins: Yes
Gunnar Klintberg: Yes
Leander Krueger: Yes
Arline Lomazzo: Yes
Brian Maher –
Janet McGuigan: Yes
Stephen Meskers: Yes
JoAnn O’Hara –
Barbara O’Neill: Yes
Monica Prihoda: Yes
Victoria Quake: Yes
Gary Segal: Yes
David Snyder: Yes
Alexis Voulgaris –
Victoria Martin Young: Yes

District 7

Debbie Appelbaum: Yes
Kimberly Blank: Yes
Ellen Brennan-Galvin: Yes
Mary Burrows: No
Thomas Cahill: Yes
James Cecil: No
Jill Cobbs: No
Alice Duff: No
Kimberly Fiorello: No
Elizabeth Betsy Galindo: No
William Galvin: Yes
Hilary Gunn: No
Lucia Jansen: No
Scott Kalb: Yes
Elizabeth “Wynn” McDaniel: No
Henry Orphys: No
Doreen Pearson: No
Elizabeth Perry: Yes
Luke Szymczak: No
Mike Warner: Yes

District 8

Hector Arzeno: Yes
Lisa Becker Edmundson: Yes
Peter Berg: Yes
Kip Burgweger: Yes
Jill Capalbo: No
Randy Caravella: No
Adele Caroll: No
Neil Caton: Yes
Irene Dietrich: No
Philip Dodson: No
John Eddy: No
Christine Edwards: Yes
Jennifer Freitag: Yes
Dana Gordon: Yes
Carlton Carl Higbie: No
Laura Kostin: Yes
Richard Margenot —
Janet McMahon: Yes
Linda Moshier: No
Cheryl Moss: Yes
Robert Moss: Yes
Andrew Oliver: No
Jonathan Perloe: Yes
Caryn Rosenbaum: Yes
Molly Saleeby: Yes
Alison Soler: Yes

District 9

Phylis Alexander: Yes
Seth Bacon: Yes
Michael Brescia: No
Claudia Carthaus –
Barbara Darula –
Patti DeFelice: No
Melissa Evans: Yes
Betsy Frumin: No
Donna Gaudioso-Zeale: Yes
Anne Jones: Yes
Deborah Krautheim: Yes
Abbe Large: No
Brian Malin: No
Lauren O’Keefe –
Brian Raney: No
Ferdinando Schiro: Yes
Jonathan Shankman: Yes
Lilian “Sharon” Shisler –
Joanne Steinhart: Yes
Jane Weisbecker: No
Carol Zarilli: No

District 10

Natalie Adee: No
Gerald Anderson: Yes
Granit Balidemaj: No
Jude Collins: No
Allyson Cowinn: No
Mareta Hamre: Yes
W Brooks Harris: No
Katherine Hynes: No
Sara Kessler: Yes
Rachel Khanna: Yes
Lawrence Malkin: Yes
Nancy Marshall: Yes
John Mastracchio –
Diana Singer: Yes
Sheryl Sorbaro: No
Jane Sprung: No
Louisa Stone: Yes
Joanna Swomley: Yes
Sophie Veronis: Yes
Svetlona Wasserman: Yes

District 11

Victoria Bostock: Yes
Adam Brodsky: Yes
Thomas Devaney: Yes
Susan Fahey: Yes
Tracy Freedman: Yes
Karen Giannuzzi: Yes
Margaret Heppelmann —
Susan Khanna: Yes
Adam Leader: Yes
Dana Neuman: No
Richard Neuman: No
David Oliver: No
Gregg Pauletti: Yes
Ralph Penny: Yes
Brad Radulovacki: No
Stuart Reider –
Kimberly Salib: No
Michael Spilo: No
Cathryn Fineman Steel: Yes
Ronald Strackbein: No
Elisabeth “Lisa” Stuart: Yes
Thomas West: No
Gregory Zorthian: Yes

District 12

Hajime Agresta: Yes
Thomas Agresta –
Francia Alvarez: Yes
Craig Amundson: Yes
Glen Canner: Yes
Jeffrey Crumbine: Yes
David DeMilhau –
Ryan Fazio: No
Mary Flynn: Yes
Barbara Hindman: Yes
Mary Keller: Yes
Paula Legere Mickley: Yes
Aaron Leonard: Yes
Frederick Lorthioir: No
Robert May: No
Miriam Mennin –
Ellen Murdock: Yes
Jocelyn Riddle: Yes
Joseph Smith: Yes
Jane Sulich: No
Donald Whyko: Yes
Andrew Winston: Yes

(A dash after their name means the person did not cast a vote on that item.)

Neither Tom Byrne nor Alexis Voulgaris voted as they were moderating the meeting.