BOE Talk Tough Cuts to Greenwich Schools Budget with 353 Attendees on Zoom

The BOE meet Thursday night on Zoom, with 353 people listening remotely.

The public school 20-21 budget was discussed at length.

Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones said earlier in the week the finance committee met and that there had been a collaboration with principals and leaders about ways to close the $4.5 million gap in the budget ($1.5 million special education shortfall and $3 million the BET reduced from the proposed school budget).

Dr. Jones said the committee looked at staff reductions and came up with a list of 17 possible layoffs, though she warned, overall, every teacher will be needed if schools open their doors next year with requirements for social distancing.

“When we look at what we can reduce, one item that comes up is raising class size… First of all, we’ve already done that, and at the high school, they feel they already have sections that are too large. But, with Covid we’re going to have situations that are the opposite,” she added, noting that requirements for social distancing in schools would mean much fewer children in a room with a teacher.

Jones said  a long list of items had been discussed with the committee including eliminating a coordinator position, two AA’s (secretary positions), special education study funds, $100K of software, downgrade of assistant superintendent position, eliminating all new library books, state and national travel, looking at K-3 foreign language in elementary schools, except at Julian Curtiss School, where it is part of their magnet program which represents 3.8 full time positions, shave $100K off $240K smart boards, media assistant moving from full time to part time in all 11 schools, eliminating the Friday late bus for middle schools, eliminate grade 2 ALP which is 2.2 full time positions, 2 PE staff reductions and a media assistant, for a total of 17 positions, both certified and non-certified.

“This is not my list as a superintendent, but it is collaborative from all our leadership,” she said, adding that retirements could also save money. “That gets us to $2.2 million.”

She said one item that was suggested by many on the committee was a return to original school start time.

“With that item, we’re not sure that $1.2 million could actually be recouped now, because every year costs change, routes change, and with Covid-19, busing is up in the air,” she said.

“We also talked about a furlough day and plugged in a number for that, but with those sorts of things you have to go through collective bargaining,” Jones said. “On the list was closing a school. That was a consideration, but when you think about Covid, we need more space not less.”

“We reduced our professional development by $750,000 last year,” Jones continued, adding that given the discussion about success and failure of distance learning to date, it would be important to support professional development.

“Those really are the big items. Cancelling field trips –  those will be given if we have to reduce items.”

Kathleen Stowe, who attended the Finance Committee meeting, said, “These were obviously painful cuts. We had a lean budget. But, these are tough times. It’s important for the committee to hear what we are going to consider.”

BOE chair Peter Bernstein offered thoughts on the cuts.

“The latest rumor is that I’m personally interested in rolling back start time as a cost saving measure,” he said. “Those sharing that rumor might want to consider the source of that. …I’m going to be clear, I am not in favor of rolling back start time as a cost saving measure. I have not said that I was at any time since we took the original vote years ago. I think the decision to make start time change was in response to health concerns of our students. I don’t see any reason to revisit that.”

“That said, given Covid,” Bernstein continued. “If we have to run shifts during the day, I presume we’d have that discussion about temporary adjustment to the school day, but I don’t think I’ll ever be in favor of revisiting it as a cost saving measure.”

Dr. Jones said reversing the change in school start time was one of the items on  the finance committee’s list of possible ways to cut the budget, but it was at the bottom.

Bernstein noted that the current proposed 20-21 budget was built last fall, anticipating going back to school in a regular sense.

With Covid-19, it will be necessary to plan for a variety of possible scenarios, including back to school, distance learning or a hybrid combination of both.

Also should a student test positive with Covid-19, an individual school might have to shut down for five days.

“I’m more generally uncomfortable with the cuts proposed so far, but I recognize the reality….I appreciate the effort to spread the items out across areas. This is a starting point, not an end. I think we’ll be talking about this for quite a while,” Bernstein said.

BOE member Peter Sherr said this was his 10th year participating in the school budget process, and that he could recommend five items totaling $23 million that wouldn’t impact classrooms.

“The real number we’re trying to cover is the raises that the unions are contracted for, and decided they need to get for teachers and administrators,” he said. “I’d focus on closing that gap, and the $1.5 million for special education, I think is solvable if we collaborate with the BET.”

Mr. Sherr recommended suspending programs not mandated by law: summer school, optional preschool, administrative staffing (specifically, assistant principals at smaller elementary schools), instructional coaches, a research manager position, social workers, IT devices distributed to students, consolidating bus routes, (“There’s no reason reason private school kids can’t run in same bus with public school kids.”)

Lastly, he suggested eliminating Greenwich Schools departments that are duplicated at town hall including the IT Dept, HR Dept, and Finance Dept.

He said none of those items impact students in the classroom or core educational programs.

“I think the list you came up with is great, but there is a much bigger list of things that people might not be aware of that are luxuries,” he said. “Unfortunately teachers are sticking to the guns that they must get raises starting July 1.”

Dr. Jones said summer school had already been adjusted and will look different.

“We’re only doing literacy and numeracy. Optional Pre-K, I will look at. On Administrative staffing, if you don’t have an Assistant Principal, the number of PPTs for special ed is difficult for principals because then you don’t have the principal available for discipline an other things that happen in the building. We’re already moved out our instructional coaches – next year they will be math interventionists. The social workers – we’d be very nervous to cut because of social-emotional learning. The IT devices are in the capital budget, not the operating budget, so it doesn’t help bring the operating budget down.”

Jones said work was already being done on to consolidate buses with private schools.

As for combining IT, HR, and Finance departments, Jones said teacher certification is enormous for the schools HR department and requires a unique skill set.

As for combining IT departments, she said, “working with an 8-year old is vastly different from working with a police department.”

“Same with School Finance department – it needs an extremely high skill set and includes understanding things like special education funding. Some of those items, we have looked at,” she continued.

“We need to go back and check all of our sacred cows and make some harder decisions,” Mr. Sherr said, adding that he had done 9 budgets and Dr. Jones was doing her first in Greenwich.

BOE member Meghan Olsson commented that cutting services would absolutely impact both students and educators.

“We’ve already cut our budget down to the bone. Now we’re talking about cutting off the skeleton’s feet.”

Karen Hirsh said she hadn’t been able to sleep since the Finance Committee meeting earlier in the week.

“The biggest concern is that we’ve been ask to make these reductions for so many years, and we’ve said they’re not sustainable in the long term, if we want to see growth in our students and our academics.”

“We’ve gone into distance learning with little to no funding for professional development and curriculum development,” Hirsh said. “That we’ll be doing it again going into next year scares me.”

Hirsh said it was far to early to broach the topic of changing school start time.

“We may need to completely revise how our schools schedules will look – starting earlier, going later,” she said.

Hirsh said every reduction would impact students and educators, and that she was particularly troubled by the suggestion to reduce social workers.

“I cannot wrap my brain around it,” she said. “We are going through a period of time now where students are dealing with things in their homes they’ve never had to, the levels of stress and anxiety, and nationally, the levels of abuse. We need our social workers more than ever. I’d hesitate to add that to a list.”

Christina Downey applauded Dr. Jones. “I know this is gut wrenching,” she said. “Finding ways to achieve cuts will have impacts on students and staff. We’re looking at the least bad scenario.”

Dr. Jones said the challenges of budgeting are difficult because there are many unknowns due to Covid-19. Expenses vary depending on scenarios, and the least expensive would be distance learning.

In the fall, if the district continues distance learning she said there would be obvious savings on transportation and athletics. She also said there would be additional expenses if there is a return to school with distance learning because students would have to spread out, and there would be the need to sanitize twice a day.

Lastly she said there may be an executive order to keep the busing going even despite distance learning.

“You could have a really expensive week and a week that’s not, and a week with a ton of overtime, and a week without overtime, just basic disinfecting,” she said.

Dr. Jones said that it would be possible that in the fall school would be in session two weeks and then switch to distance learning for a week or two if a student tested positive for Covid-19.

“You know I am exceptionally angry about this situation,” Mr. Sherr said.  “I’m exceptionally annoyed that the union – and I don’t think it’s the rank and file – I think it’s the leadership, have refused to help us in any way with this problem,” he said. “A principal is paid $176,000. The president of the principal’s union also has someone in her household who is also a principal. They will be taking home $350,000 from Greenwich Public Schools this year, and their raise will be $10,000 collectively.”

“We’re looking (to omit) other positions so that they can get an additional $10,000 raise in the middle of a depression?” Sherr asked. “It’s beyond stunning what we’re talking about. With people reduction, if we’re going to close a budget gap, we need to go where the money is. And the money is in these higher order positions.”

“We need to look at our high cost talent and say, where can we cut back?” he continued.  “I’d love to have the unions to come to the table and say, ‘We’ll forego raises and we’ll keep every employee we have.’ But they’re refused, so we’re in this position.”

“You can’t go in and just look at someone at a top salary and say we’re going to cut a principal,” Dr. Jones said.

“That’s not what I said,” Mr. Sherr replied.

“To the two people you referenced, there are people (on the Zoom meeting) who know who those principals are –  they have done wonderful work, they should not have to apologize for having a salary that is a professional salary in a professional community,” Dr. Jones said. “I think there are people who do understand that when you’ve spent years at a school and honed your craft and worked our way up, in whatever profession, you earn a professional salary.”

As for head count, Dr. Jones said that even before the current budget was proposed, head count had been cut.

“We cut the assistant to our deputy. We cut our assistant director of Human Resources. We cut our Assistant Director of Food Service, and we also downgraded one of our administrative positions before we came into this budget situation,” she said.

Dr. Jones said the board would have to work collaboratively to make tough decisions and they would have to be made quickly.

There are 17 positions on a list for possible layoffs and staff need to know quickly if they were to lose their jobs.

“Policy wise it’s called ‘a reduction in force,'” Jones explained. “Seniority is generally one of the drivers. Some of the time it’s certification that goes along with that. It’s very contractual.”

“Who those 17 people might be will be determined by the bargaining process,” Jones said.

Stay tuned.