Teachers’ Union President to BOE: Why is the budget process so hard?

It’s budget season for Greenwich Public Schools and the Board of Education is holding its budget meeting on Dec 6 at 7:00pm at North Street School. (This reflects change of location).

At the Nov 14 BOE meeting, which is  available to view on YouTube, teachers union president Carol Sutton said this year will be her 6th budget cycle as leader of the 900+ member Greenwich Education Association.

She asked the board to consider the thought that goes into the budget proposed by the Superintendent and his team, and to trust them.

“Each budget cycle I find myself wondering why this process is so hard,” she said. “In my fantasy world, the board trusts their professionalism, experience, knowledge of best practice and fiscal acumen.”

She said that ideally, the board would, “pass it, and then get out there and advocate for it with other Town bodies and citizens – kind of like the cheerleaders.”

“In some places they would have to, in front of all the citizenry, because budgets are passed in a referendum,” she added.

Sutton implored the board not to get lost in the weeds. “I don’t think it has to be difficult,” she said.

Citing Greenwich High School headmaster Piotrzkowski‘s comments earlier in the meeting that GHS was ranked by US News & World Report as the 7th best in the state and second best in Fairfield County and that, for example, among the class of 2018, 57%+ of students took and passed at least one AP exam, Sutton, a longtime educator herself, said Greenwich is an awesome district by any measure.

“I invite anyone to take the bet that the schools that are in higher positions than us, I bet you they are less diverse and that they do not have 25% + of the student body falling into one or more category of significant need,” she said.

However, Sutton said, “I really worry about how we will maintain and grow this district with a budget that includes nothing extra: nothing for innovation, nothing for the awesomeness we have, nothing extra for the students coming to us with more severe behavioral and psychological issues than ever before.”

The union president said there was nothing for assistant deans, who she described as a lifeline for students. And, she said, “You’re charging your one employee, the Superintendent, ‘Find us the .8 because we’re are chasing the 2%.'”

She said she found it hard to reconcile, with all the thought about how money is spent, that the Opportunity Block was reducing the amount of instructional time by 30 minutes a day at GHS.

The Opportunity Block was the brainchild of former superintendent Dr. Jill Gildea who said she wanted to maintain the principal of an 8-1/2- to 9-hour sleep cycle for GHS students made possible by the change in start time, while addressing the instructional time missed by athletes at the end of the day.

She proposed shaving off minutes from each class to create a full block at the end of the day, noting GHS was already well above the five hour minimal instructional day required by law.

The board voted last May to approve Gildea’s Opportunity Block proposal, but then in June voted to limit the opportunity block to 30 minutes.

Sutton described the opportunity block as “one big study hall.”

“GHS teachers have 30 less minutes of instruction per day, while the school essentially goes into a big study hall so that athletes don’t miss instruction,” she said.

“How much instruction, curriculum development, collaboration, innovation could you buy for what it costs each day for opportunity block?” she asked.

“What are the teachers doing? Checking passes? Monitoring the hallway? They don’t do those things at any other time of day at GHS and never have because we have freedom with responsibility, except during Opportunity Block when everyone has to have a purple pass in order to be able to go see a teacher,” Sutton said.

On the topic of transportation, Sutton said costs for buses rose since the implementation of school start time change.

“Are you aware of the problem since the change in school start time? Transportation that costs more? Each and every day about one third of the GHS buses are late,” she said.  “Kids are on those buses who are entitled to Free and Reduced Lunch and they have to choose whether to be on time or get food. And that includes PSAT day when 13 buses were late and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and there were no seniors on the road because they got to come in late.”

Sutton received a round of applause from the audience when she concluded, “I’m left sometimes truly baffled by what we allow to happen and what we choose to pay for and not to pay for.”

Interim Superintendent Ralph Mayo defended the Opportunity Block as a work in progress, but noted that it is working for athletes.

Mayo said that on Nov 5, the athletic teams practicing outside were released 2:45pm to go to their practices.

“This was initiated for safety reasons as the clocks were turned back on Nov 4,” he said, adding that he happened to be driving by at sunset and stopped to talk to the head coach of one team. “He said the strategy was working well for his team,” Mayo said.

Also, Mr. Mayo said interim GHS headmaster Piotrzkowski has been very methodical in implementing the Opportunity Block, holding numerous focus groups and meetings with student government, GEA liaisons, Learning Planning Council and the GHS PTA.

Beginning on Oct 8 students were given 80 different offerings to choose from other than a study period. Some of the choices include chess club, anthropology of food, Broadway appreciation and the Cyber Patriot Club.

Mayo said that beginning November 15 students would be able to have an add/drop option.

“Mr. Piotrzkowski and his team will continue to make changes as they gain additional information from all constituents,” Mayo said.

Another counterweight to Sutton’s remarks came from BOE member Lauren Rabin who said the board seeks “efficiencies,” not necessarily cuts.

Mrs. Rabin said she and Mr. Mayo had recently attended a Student Government Executive Committee meeting at GHS.

“We talked about vaping. And I talked about the budget – so thank you Carol for also talking about the budget,” she said. “Because they weren’t exactly sure. I said we were looking for ‘efficiencies,’ and they didn’t necessarily translate that to cost cutting. They’re thinking about ideas and had suggestions for the budget to be more efficient.”

See also:

BOE to Superintendent: Slice “Opportunity Block” to Half Hour (June 2018)

BOE Approves Gildea’s Start/End Time Creative Solution for GHS: The “Opportunity Block” (May 19, 2018)