With a projected $2 million budget deficit looming over the proceedings, the Board of Education on Friday began a laborious review of Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon's proposed $110.9 million budget for the next fiscal year.
The spending plan, unveiled at an all-day workshop started a line-by-line review of Landon's 2014-15 budget request, proposes a 6.5 percent boost in spending over the current $104 million budget -- more than 2 percent of the hike is allocated to cover the gap in this year's budget.
Even though the recently revealed deficit was not the focus of the workshop, it was acknowledged in Landon's opening remarks to the approximately dozen people-- town officials and parents -- attending the workshop in the Westport Library.
"We have a committee dealing with the over-expenditure in the [health insurance fund]," he said, adding that he feels the problem is being addressed in "the most productive manner."
Landon has also included $742,600 in the proposed $110.9 million budget's health and medical insurance account -- as a claim fluctuation margin, or safety net --to protect against future, unanticipated health expenditures that are being blamed for this year's shortfall.
"This year is a very, very good budget from every perspective," he said. "In fact, if you look at it without dealing with the need to cover the [shortfall] you can see we are fiscally holding costs down."
"We are working transparently, expeditiously and thoroughly" on the deficit problem, added Board of Education Chairwoman Elaine Whitney. "We have made major headway with our review committee," she said, referring to an ad hoc school board committee established earlier this week to look into the matter.
She said the education board is also "actively supporting an external review" approved by the Board of Finance this week. A $15,000 contract for that review was signed Friday by the Board of Selectmen with the firm of McGlandery and Pullen LLC.
The school board had already approved hiring an outside auditor, if needed.
"We are working on a method to ensure that everyone will have confidence in our numbers," Whitney added.
Six health claims by school district employees, much larger than anticipated, appear to a major factor in the 2013-14 shortfall -- initially estimated at $1,988,709 -- the ad hoc committee was told Thursday by Elio Longo, the school distinct's business manager. Those claims alone cost about $1.3 million, he said.
Bookkeeping mistakes also contributed to the shortfall when a financial report prepared by Longo's predecessor, Nancy Harris, indicated the board had more assets in its insurance account than it actually did, he told the committee.