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Greenwich schools budget approved nearly $380,000 higher than expected

December 22, 2016 GMT

GREENWICH — The school budget has come in nearly $380,000 higher than expected and the Board of Education and First Selectman Peter Tesei are at odds over who is responsible.

The school board this week approved a $153 million operating budget for 2017-18. The spending plan has been sent to the town finance board.

It includes $789,264 to cover changes to school bus schedules that will accommodate later school start times that go into effect next fall; and money for a new transportation contract that is to rise by 7 percent.

Those amounts were no surprise to board members who passed the budget Tuesday night. But they and district administrators said they were surprised to hear earlier in the day that the amount the town would pay for private school transportation was $2.99 million — $378,847 less than they had expected.

“To come back to us today on the day we’re passing the budget and say, ‘By the way, find an additional $300,000.’ is beyond the pale,” board member Peter Bernstein said Tuesday night.

The increase in private school transportation funding in the school budget means as approved it will come in at 2.25 percent above last year’s spending plan, beyond the 2 percent increase called for by the Board of Estimate and Taxation.

School board member Peter Sherr called the timing of the town’s notice “poor.” Board member Debbie Appelbaum said the unexpected funding drop put the board in an untenable position: either make cuts or go over its 2 percent increase limit.

However, on Wednesday Tesei said the board and administration had been given ample warning, dating back to June, that less money would be available for private school busing since more would have to be allocated to cover the public schools’ later start times.

According to documents provided to The Greenwich Time Wednesday, Tesei sent a memo to former schools Superintendent William McKersie on June 6 which specifically states transportation funding would be adjusted for the 2017-18 fiscal year.

The documents include an agenda for a July 11 meeting with interim Superintendent Sal Corda where the two were to discuss 2017-18 budget changes. The agenda includes a hand-written note adding “reallocation of costs to the areas where money has been spent” to the discussion.

Corda “was well aware from the first month that this had to happen,” Tesei said. “Everyone was well aware. They just chose to ignore it. It’s strange to see the board so indignant. We should be the ones who are indignant over this.”

He accused the board and administration of “flippant disregard” of his office’s funding warnings.

The town is required by law to provide transportation for private school students. Transportation costs are shared between the school budget and the town budget.

Corda had been asked about the cost during school budget discussions with board members and in written answers he sent to the board for its Nov. 21 meeting said the cost provided by the town had been calculated at $3.37 million.

Corda did not return a request for comment.

Board of Education Chairman Laura Erickson said on Wednesday it was unclear where communications broke down.

“Clearly there was some sort of misunderstanding,” Erickson said.

She said her board is focused on working with the selectmen’s office and the Board of Estimate and Taxation on making sure the budget is approved.

“We are moving forward,” Erickson said. “It does not serve us well to debate this further.”

BET guidelines are not mandatory but the finance board has the power to cut the school budget to bring it within the guidelines.

The Board of Education still can amend its budget in early January before the BET Budget Committee begins its work.

“I personally do not want to see any funds reduced in instruction,” Appelbaum said. “As long as we can have these conversations and we can address what needs to happen we need to prevent this from happening.”

Sherr said the transportation contract has not been signed yet and “there could be opportunities to gain efficiencies.”

Board member Jennifer Dayton said the change should not be used to create any delays in implementing the later start time.

“We made a promise to the public that we were moving forward on this issue and it is in our budget guidelines that we are implementing school start times,” Dayton said. “It has to be something we’re accountable for to the public.”

Tesei said he would be willing to speak in favor of the school budget to the BET, even if it comes in at 2.25 percent above last year.

“If this is the best they can do in terms of addressing priorities in the budget, then yes, I would do that,” Tesei said.

kborsuk@scni.com