We Need Unprecedented Leadership

Editorial Photo

Editorial Photo

Earlier this week, it was reported that the Greenwich Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) “cut” the school budget for the 2020/21 school year. That is not exactly true. The language here is tricky.

The Superintendent, Dr. Toni Jones, proposed a FY 2020-21 operating budget of $167,141,586 (excludes employee benefits which are accounted for elsewhere) representing a 2.31% increase over the current year’s budget. The BET did not vote to cut, but rather voted to eliminate the increase, creating a zero or flat year over-year change for next year.

Here is the problem: full-time salaries account for approximately 80% of the expense budget and most employees are part of unions or collective bargaining units that require annual salary increases. For the FY20-21 school year, these salary increases add approximately $2.4 million to the current budget and accounted for 63% of the district’s year-over-year increase. That means that either the salary increases need to be eliminated or the Superintendent needs to find another $2.4 million from other areas.

Prior to Monday’s vote, emotions ran high. There was a lot of misinformation about programs and teachers being cut. There was also an orchestrated effort from parents to influence the BET vote. A demonstration was held on Sunday where about 100 cars drove by Town Hall honking their horns. It is likely no one was at Town Hall to witness the drive by, but we understand the point.

It is important to realize that if more money is needed, Dr. Jones and the BOE can and should come back to the BET and ask for interim appropriations at that time. There is precedent for this approach and the BET has said outright that they are very willing to do this.

The BET has asked ALL town departments to hold the line on expenses to the current year’s level. The only exception we noted, for obvious reasons, is healthcare costs.

This is a prudent step given our current state of affairs with a pandemic, the state’s already dire fiscal problems, and our town’s potentially difficult economic outlook.

Why then should the Board of Education budget be exempt from following the same guidelines?

Flat budgets and/or reductions are happening in school systems all around us like Westport, New Canaan, and Darien just to name a few. In the midst of a pandemic and unprecedented economic uncertainty, the most prudent course of action is to plan for the worst and hope for the best. This is not the end of the discussion, rather a midway point where we can wait and see.

Over the past five years the BOE has asked for and received $20 million to invest in distance learning programs. This is not a school district that has suffered the word no as much as some would have us believe. Nor should it. Our children’s education should come first but that is not always about money.

In order to shield our children as much as possible, short term concessions from adults in the public school system will be necessary. These are unprecedented times that require unprecedented leadership. We need to come together to find better answers than we have before.

Many employees have taken a voluntary pay cut or lost their jobs entirely. There is so much angst in the world right now. Let’s not add to people’s stress level by resorting to the same old rhetoric – fear mongering and politics.

To demand that the anyone should expect to get their standard pay increase when so many others are going without anything at all is simply entitled and tone deaf. It is time for unprecedented leadership from everyone.

About Author: Peter Barhydt

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