$202.5M budget in place after RTM OKs school spending
Updated 12:12 pm, Wednesday, May 6, 2015
The Representative Town Meeting, after approving an education budget with a 1.8 percent increase for 2015-16 Tuesday night, unanimously adopted an overall spending package of $202,505,295 for the new fiscal year beginning July 1.
That includes a new education operating budget of $111,171,756, which is $300,000 less than the budget approved by the Board of Finance in March. That spending plan had projected a 2.08 percent increase over the current budget.
The lower budget approved Tuesday, according to Board of Education Vice Chairwoman Jeannie Smith, resulted from "a favorable variance" as of March 31 in the account for special education tuition for placement outside of district. The entire school budget, which also includes revenue offsets, aid for outside tuition, and debt service, is $123,582,074.
Board Chairman Michael Gordon could not attend Tuesday's meeting, but gave comments in a virtual presentation. His comments to the Board of Finance in March were also replayed for the RTM.
"The initial increase in the budget was 2.08 percent, the lowest in five years, now it really be low," said Velma Heller, the RTM's deputy moderator and chairwoman of its Education Committee. She said the school board has to contend with "unfunded mandates, overcrowding and maintaining facilities" while keeping costs in line.
She said 94 percent of the school budget is non-discretionary, including fixed allocations for "transportation, special education and legal fees," as well as staff salaries and benefits.
Heller said the cost per student in Westport's public schools is $18,173, which is "mid-range."
Meanwhile, she said, the school district has made enhancements, including "new courses at Staples, literacy coaches, a security person in each school which really addresses the kind of internal threats that many have been concerned about, and restorative maintenance."
Heller also cited the "school-town collaboration" that has resulted in "efficient and cost-saving processes."
The education committee, she added, unanimously supported the school spending plan.
RTM member Alan Bomes, District 7, reading the RTM's finance committee report, cited new budget techniques adopted by the Board of Education, including "monthly health care reports" and their "zero-based budget."
And, he added, the board, with a $500,000 surplus in the current budget, is spending that money for school maintenance programs.
"I have to ask," said RTM member Wendy Batteau, District 8, "Why is there a $500,000 surplus?"
Elio Longo, the district's director of school operations, said the surplus resulted from a reserve budget set aside for three teachers, who weren't hired. "We didn't need them," he said. Surplus money also resulted with the retirements of long-time teachers paid $90,000 salaries, who were replaced with teachers paid about $50,000 a year.
"This is my twin loves -- the school and saving money combined in one night," said RTM member Clarissa Moore, District 4.
"There has always been that rock-solid Board of Ed in Westport," added RTM member Louis Mall, District 2. "It's the consistency in town."
"This is an acknowledgment of the hard work performed by the Board of Education and the administration in producing a fiscally prudent and academically vibrant budget," Gordon said in a press release shortly after the unanimous vote on the school budget. "Our now-approved budget for next year will launch many new initiatives across the district that keep the Westport schools on the leading edge in the classroom and beyond."
He said these will include a commitment to literacy coaches at all school levels; expansion of the design, engineering and computer programming courses at the secondary level; investment in maintenance and building projects; and efforts to maximize security protection for students and staff at all of the town's schools.
"Our school system has made incredible progress in recent years, and we will build on that progress with this very comprehensive and thoughtful budget," Smith said in the same release. "I thank the RTM for approving it."
On Monday night, the RTM had unanimously approved a $78,923,221 town budget, a 2.51 percent increase over current spending.
The town-side budget includes the restoration of $37,714 to the Westport Transit District's budget, which was cut in a 4-3 vote by the Board of Finance several weeks ago.
Of that amount, $20,000 is earmarked for marketing and $17,741 as Westport's share of a new Norwalk Transit District position, which would be focused part-time on marketing and planning efforts for Westport.
The Board of Finance is scheduled to meet May 20 to officially set the mill rate to finance the spending plans for the new fiscal year.