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$104M school budget OK'd as RTM completes '14 spending plans

Updated 6:16 am, Wednesday, May 8, 2013

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  • Board of Education Chairwoman Elaine Whitney addresses the Representative Town Meeting on Tuesday, where the legislative body approved a $104 million school budget for 2013-14. WESTPORT NEWS, CT 5/7/13 Photo: Paul Schott / Westport News
    Board of Education Chairwoman Elaine Whitney addresses the Representative Town Meeting on Tuesday, where the legislative body approved a $104 million school budget for 2013-14. WESTPORT NEWS, CT 5/7/13 Photo: Paul Schott

 

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The Representative Town Meeting, in nearly unanimous votes Tuesday night, approved $104 million in education operating expenditures for 2013-14, completing action on a $193 overall budget for the new fiscal year starting July 1.

Overall spending will rise by approximately $4.6 million next year, a 2.4 percent increase.

Education spending, including about $12.7 million for debt service, will total about $117 million. Those expenditures will account for 61 percent of the entire town budget.

The RTM did not cut any education funds. On Monday, it approved a $75.6 million municipal spending plan, restoring restored $30,000 cut in March by the Board of Finance.

The school district's operating budget totals $4 million more than its current-year spending plan. District expenditures next year will rise 3.95 percent, the largest percentage increase since 2009. Contractual salary and spending increases account for a 3.61 percent rise, special-education spending will produce a 0.2 percent increase, while smaller second-grade class sizes and a new eighth-grade science, technology, engineering and math program will drive a 0.14 percent increase.

"We've been very careful to demonstrate strong financial stewardship and, at the same time, keep our schools excellent," Board of Education Chairwoman Elaine Whitney told the RTM.

Whitney argued that the school district has successfully limited spending in recent years. She pointed to a five-year compound annual growth rate of 2.16 percent, which she said totaled less than that of the Consumer Price Index during the same period. She also highlighted savings totaling approximately $500,000 next year, including $402,000 achieved by moving teachers to high-deductible health savings accounts and $95,000 from increased productivity for "specials" teachers, who focus on art, music, physical education and world languages.

The school board cut $1.2 million from Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon's proposed 2013-14 budget, before it brought that spending plan to the Board of Finance and RTM. Like the RTM, the finance board did not make any school-spending cuts this year.

District enrollment is projected to remain essentially flat, with approximately 5,800 students.

Westport's per pupil spending of approximately $17,600 this year ranks fifth among 10 peer districts in Fairfield County. At the high end, Greenwich spends about $18,700; at the other end, Ridgefield allocates about $14,500.

RTM members' debate

While the school budget easily won the RTM's approval, the education board's fiscal policies prompted criticism from some members. Don Bergmann, District 1, delivered a lengthy critique of the district's fiscal management.

"I am concerned that this budget does not address long-term trends and financial realities, but rather, in the main, continues past practices," he said. "I am concerned that the Board of Education is unduly deferential to the superintendent of the schools and does not truly engage with the public, the Board of Finance and RTM in developing a forthright understanding of the numbers and the judgments underlying those numbers."

But Bergmann did not gain wide support from his colleagues, with more of them saying that they endorsed the board's budget.

"As the mother of a small child in the school system, I'm blown away by the way these children are being taught," said Clarissa Moore, District 4. "It's easy to say, `Why is this person making this, why is this person making that?' But then when you go to meet with the various schools' teachers, they are absolutely dedicated, wonderful people."

Dick Lowenstein, District 5, meanwhile, said he was pleased that education officials had started to project revenue from school-facilities rentals. The district could net $20,000 from rental-fee increases next year, according to a district estimate.

But he also called for more transparency from education officials.

"We don't see want to see a Board of Education, which is a riddle wrapped up in an enigma surrounded by mystery," he said. "I would like to see a more open administration on the education side, so that any one of us can go into the offices of the Board of Education administration and ask them a question without feeling that we have to get a clearance on it."

Ginny McGovern, co-president of the Westport Parent-Teacher Association Council and wife of Board of Education Vice Chairman Michael McGovern, was the only non-town or education official to comment. She backed the budget.

"Our children are smart, creative and entrepreneurial and talented as children anywhere in the world," she said. "What we must simply do is level the playing field for them. Children don't vote. We, you and me, all of us, have to stand up for children."

The RTM voted 28-3 to approve the $104.2 million education operating budget. Bergmann; Cornelia Olsen, District 1, and Cathy Talmadge, District 6, cast the dissenting votes.

The legislative body then voted 30-0-1 to approve the overall town budget. Olsen was the abstaining member.

Tuesday's RTM session concluded town officials' review of the 2013-14 budget. Based on that spending plan, the Board of Finance on May 23 is expecetd to set a new property-tax rate. Avi Kaner, the finance board's chairman, told the RTM on Monday that he and his colleagues hope to approve an increase under 2 percent.

pschott@bcnnew.com; 203-255-4561, ext. 118; twitter.com/paulschott