The Board of Education's $104.2 million budget for 2013-14 won unanimous approval from the Board of Finance on Thursday night -- unchanged from the school board's request that boosts spending 3.95 percent in the new fiscal year.
The $4.2 million school budget increase, the largest percentage rise in operating expenditures since 2008-09, was justified by board Chairwoman Elaine Whitney as necessary primarily because of education employees' salaries and benefits. For instance, the total cost of salaries for the town's public school teachers will rise by about 3.5 percent during the next school year, according to terms of their new contract.
"We looked line-by-line extremely carefully and every item we left in and put forward to you are items that we feel that we do critically need," Whitney said.
But finance board member Michael Rea argued education that spending could be further pared back as he proposed a $250,000 cut to the education budget.
"There are areas for us to consider for outsourcing and consolidation that are non-core disciplines," Rea said. "In other words, they're not teachers, they're not educators, they're not paraprofessionals or administrators. They're in the areas of facilities, building operations, payroll, purchasing, IT."
Rea's proposal reflected an ongoing push by finance board members in recent years to spur further cost savings and greater operational efficiencies in the town's school district. In March 2011, the finance board slashed $250,000 from the Board of Education's proposed 2011-12 budget to encourage consolidation of educational and municipal services. A few months later, the school district took over municipal mailroom operations and the town's Voice-Over Internet Protocol system. But other proposed areas of consolidation, such as a merging of the town's education and municipal human resources departments, have not been realized.
Rea's board colleagues, however, responded ambivalently to his proposal. While they all indicated that they want to see school officials pursue new, cost-effective measures, some said they were unsure whether a $250,000 reduction to the school district's budget would help to achieve that goal.
"I think the battery went dead and we seem to have reached an impasse," Helen Garten, the board's vice chairwoman, said of consolidation efforts. "While I agree with Mike's sentiments, I just don't know at this point if making a cut like this is going to be a way to stimulate that discussion."
While recommending to education officials that they develop more "decision-oriented" budgets, Brian Stern said he would not favor cutting the school budget proposal. He also called for his board colleagues to place their confidence in the Board of Education's fiscal management.
"What we ought to do is to trust Elaine [Whitney] and her board to make good economic decisions and to make cost-saving decisions where they can," he added. "Such that, at the end of the year, when the dust settles and it's not a budget, it's actual spending, that maybe we'll start to give back money and give the Board of Ed the freedom within the budget they've proposed."
John Pincavage showed more enthusiasm for Rea's proposal.
"My attitude on it is, just as a management tool, I just like to give less rather than more," he said. "If people have to work a little bit harder to achieve the ends they have to get to, so be it."
If he were faced with a reduced budget, Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon told the finance board that he would be reluctant to cut existing programs in the school district.
"Why throw out the baby with the bath water?" he said. "I'm not prepared to throw out any of our successful programs that have brought us to this point."
Rea subsequently withdrew his proposed $250,000 cut, while reiterating his recommendation for education officials to pursue new efficiencies.
Aside from municipal and education officials, no audience members commented Thursday on the education budget.
Including both the municipal and education budgets, the Board of Finance approved a total town budget of approximately $193 million for the 2013-14 fiscal year, comprising a 2.4 percent increase over current spending.
Education expenditures next year will also include about $14 million in debt service and approximately $300,000 in aid to private and parochial schools.
Based on those planned expenditures next year, the finance board aims to set a new property tax rate in May that increases the current level by less than 2 percent, said Board of Finance Chairman Avi Kaner.
The finance board chairman added that the 2013-14 town budget fully funded Westport's obligations for town employees' pension and health-care benefits, "strongly supports" the town's public schools and allowed for reinvestment in infrastructure and the continued pay-down of long-term debt.
The education budget will next head to the Representative Town Meeting, where it will face a final vote in early May. In the last two years, the RTM has not cut any funds from the school district's spending plans.
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