Op-Ed submitted by Sean Goldrick, March 31, 2017. Goldrick served two terms as a Democratic member of the Greenwich Board of Estimate and Taxation. He lives in Riverside.
In a letter sent by Greenwich PTA Council President Michael Trogni to Governor Malloy on behalf of PTAC, Mr. Trogni expressed “strong opposition” to proposed cuts in state aid to the Greenwich Public Schools system. Mr Trogni claimed that the cuts will “drastically impact” Greenwich schools, called the reductions “unfair” and “inequitable”, and the process “plainly-biased.”
Contrary to Mr. Trogni’s and PTAC’s claims, however, a clear-eyed analysis of Greenwich’s fiscal metrics and our public school system’s finances shows that Governor Malloy got it right.
PTAC claims that the cuts to Greenwich and other wealthy communities are “unfair.” First, consider that Greenwich’s property tax rate is not only the lowest by far of any municipality in the state of Connecticut, it’s also the lowest in the tri-state area. So compared with other Connecticut municipalities, Greenwich is certainly placed better than most to absorb a cut in state funding.
Further, Greenwich has accumulated a cash reserve (“general fund balance”) that currently exceeds $56 million, a figure which I estimate is some $30 million in excess of what is required for potential emergency funding needs. So not only is the proposed cut relatively minor in terms of the schools operating budget, it is small in comparison with the town’s excess cash reserves.
Moreover, a major source of Greenwich’s cash reserves is funds returned unspent from the Greenwich Public Schools budget. Indeed, over the past seven years alone, Greenwich Public Schools have returned unspent nearly $18 million. In the last fiscal year, GPS returned unspent nearly $1.7 million to the town, an amount substantially larger than ECS funds provided by the state.
The practice of the school system’s returning millions of dollars unspent for years belies PTAC’s claim that the reductions in ECS funding will “drastically impact” the schools budget. It also contradicts PTAC’s claim that the town’s budgeting process is “efficient.”
Further, Greenwich’s expenditures on its public school system are actually relatively low compared with those of other wealthy towns in southwestern Connecticut.
In most towns in our region, at least two out of every three dollars in municipal spending go to fund the public schools. By contrast, Greenwich’s education budget comprises less than half of total town spending. On a per resident basis, Greenwich spends just $2,619 on its school system.
In contrast, Westport spends the equivalent of $4,529 per resident on its school system; Darien’s education spending equates to $4,549 per resident; and New Canaan’s to $4,452.
So while Greenwich schools return millions of dollars unspent to the town, the education budget itself represents a much smaller burden per resident than is the norm in comparable neighboring towns. Those data contradict the claim that Greenwich would be “unfairly overburdened” by the governor’s proposed changes.
It is certainly ironic that PTA Council’s claim that Governor Malloy’s budget will “drastically impact” Greenwich Public Schools comes out as Greenwich’s finance board, the BET, was approving a town budget that reduces overall spending by $8.8 million. That reduction exceeds the proposed net reduction of $6.6 million in state aid to the town.
Absent from PTAC’s letter is any acknowledgement of the necessity for the state’s proposed budget changes. The principal reason is the looming $1.7 billion budget deficit facing Connecticut in the upcoming fiscal year.
If Connecticut is to avoid tax increases, the state needs to find spending reductions equivalent to 7% of the entire budget. Closing that deficit will prove virtually impossible without dealing with education spending, which comprises a much larger portion of Connecticut’s budget than it does of most other states.
Further, Governor Malloy’s plan to shift ECS support from wealthy to poorer school districts was necessitated by the recent court ruling by Superior Court Judge David Mowkasher who wrote that, “the egregious gaps between rich and poor school districts in this state…cry out for coherently calibrated state spending” that factors in “the special circumstances of the state’s poorest communities.”
No one wants to hear that his tax assessment will rise, and Governor Malloy’s budget changes affecting Greenwich may not be pleasant. But Governor Malloy has proposed tough action to close a serious budget deficit, while providing greater assistance to the state’s poorest school districts. The data show that Governor Malloy’s proposals affecting Greenwich are anything but “unfair”, “inequitable”, and “biased,” as the Greenwich PTA Council charges.
Indeed, the PTA Council’s misleading and inaccurate criticisms are an embarrassment to the Greenwich PTA and its members, and do a disservice to the town of Greenwich. Despite PTAC’s protestations to the contrary, Governor Malloy got it right.