LETTER: Paying It Forward by Funding BOE Capital Budget

Submitted by Janet Stone McGuigan, District 6 RTM Member

In response to the decision by the Republican members of the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) to cut the Board of Education (BOE) capital budget – specifically, the design for the Julian Curtiss School (JCS) and the feasibility study for Central Middle School (CMS) – I am considering voting against this year’s budget. 

The spirit in which the cuts were made go against the vision and values that this Town needs to uphold.  Our very capable families, teachers and administrators will get our children through another year, and the BOE does what it needs to do to keep our children safe.  But we need to come together as one community to serve all our students. 

The BOE’s vision for JCS includes a science room and preschool classrooms.  Most of our elementary schools have science rooms.  Not building a science room hinders the delivery of the STEM curriculum and creates an inequity; we want neither inequity nor another round of painful community debates about school inequity.  There is unmet demand for the public preschool program – the most effective way to close the achievement gap – and universal preschool is a focus of State and Federal government.

These budget cuts are the latest display of a lack of support for the Greenwich schools.  The BOE’s Facilities Master Plan suggests Greenwich needs to spend $765 million on our school facilities over the next 15 years.  That number would certainly be lower if Greenwich had not historically deferred maintenance.  With bonding that takes advantage of historically low interest rates, we could smooth that spending stream and pay off the bond over an extended period – the life of the project rather than the typical 5 to 7 years – which would reduce the annual cost.  But we are not investing what the Plan is saying we should to maintain our schools.

Why isn’t there more support for the Plan?  There are a number of misleading narratives that if not corrected become truth.  One of the easiest to dispel is an argument – not supported by the Plan – that enrollment numbers are declining.  Enrollment is cyclical and notoriously difficult to project beyond five years.  We need to design our schools with a horizon that extends for decades, not years.  Another misleading argument is that we can make our schools ADA compliant with a few simple fixes.  But accessibility is not simply an elevator or a ramp here and there. 

Yet another misleading argument is that if we delay a project, the costs will go down.  Experience says that the way to minimize expenses is to do the project right the first time.  For example, the high school’s Performing Arts Center could have been built 48 years ago (it was in the original design), unplagued by cost overruns and contaminated soil.

Perhaps the most misleading argument is that cutting projects helps those who most need our help.  The families most in need are those who cannot hire tutors, sign up for enrichment activities, or enroll in private school.  And when families opt out of the public schools, they lose advocates, and our children suffer for it. 

If more voices aren’t raised in protest, consider that families are doing their best to cope in these trying times, and local government is complicated; understanding the process often requires research.  But if some are indifferent because they won’t directly benefit, we need to do better.  It is not enough to say that good schools buoy property values and private schools can’t meet the needs of every child.  We need to pay it forward, in gratitude to those before us who advocated for our children.

The BOE devotes an entire year to crafting a thoughtful budget.  Neither party on the balanced board possesses a tie-breaking vote, meaning the budget has to have bipartisan support.  What does it say, then, that the BET won’t support the BOE?  The same BET that asked the BOE to undertake the Facilities Master Plan, and which now won’t fund a small CMS feasibility study so that the BOE can manage its facilities to the best of its ability. 

The RTM cannot increase or restore funding, only approve, reject, or cut funding from the budget.  I will not reject the budget if there is a chance the no’s could carry and the budget reverts to last year’s.  My intention is only to signal my objection, not harm our schools. Sadly I could only vote yes to the $2.1 million the BET approved toward the $8.1 million needed for the repair of North Mianus School.  I will attend any emergency meeting necessary so that contracts can be signed and construction started on July 1, and I hope my colleagues will do the same.  As a member of the RTM this is everything at my disposal to show support for our schools. 

Now it’s up to Greenwich to support our schools at the voting booth.   After all, public education is the foundation of a healthy democracy.

Janet Stone McGuigan, District 6 RTM Member