The newest member to the Board of Education was greeted Monday night with a jam-packed agenda that included serious issues, a prestigious award for a school district administrator and a musical performance by the Staples High School Orphenians.
In a unanimous vote, Paul Block was formally named to the board from a pool of eight applicants, paired down to four candidates recommended by the Republican Town Committee, to fill the vacancy created when fellow Republican Jennifer Tooker left the board after her election last month to the Board of Finance. Block will serve the remainder of Tooker's four-year term, which ends in November 2015. He was sworn in at Monday's meeting by Town Clerk Patricia Strauss.
In her new position on the finance panel, Tooker and fellow members learned last week that the school system has uncovered a nearly $2 million projected shortfall in its current budget.
Board of Education Chairwoman Elaine Whitney said Monday night the shortfall is in the schools' health insurance fund and expense account for the current fiscal year.
"This discrepancy is due to under-budgeting for legitimate expenditures of the Board of Education. There is no current cash flow problem, but we have begun planning now to address the shortfall so that we will have sufficient funds to cover future projected expenses," Whitney read from a prepared statement.
Whitney told the board and about 30 parents and educators in the audience that the Board of Education is working closely with the Board of Finance to address the deficit, and said they are in the process of scheduling a public work session in the near future to discuss the matter in detail.
The shortfall could have an impact on the process about to get under way for the 2014-15 budget. After the board heard an interim report about five day/full day kindergarten and instructional minutes guidelines, both of which included recommendations to hire additional paraprofessionals, Whitney talked about the "potential budgetary implications" that come with those recommendations.
Whitney said the board would discuss the recommendations and determine whether to work the additional staff positions into the budget proposal, "evaluating whether or not we can include them in our final budget that we bring to the Board of Finance."
Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon said each paraprofessional position would add about $35,000 to the budget times the five recommended, which would add $175,000 to next year's budget.
Block's business expertise could serve the board well at this challenging financial time. The father of four children in Westport public schools, Block is chief executive officer and president of Merisant, a global sweetener company that manufactures and markets Equal and other products. According to the Merisant website, "Prior to joining Merisant, Mr. Block had served as president and chief executive officer of Sara Lee's Coffee and Tea Consumer brand. There, he led an impressive turnaround in operating performance. Mr. Block also served as chief marketing officer and, subsequently, EVP general manager of Allied Domecq Spirits USA, where he was instrumental in the repositioning and double-digit growth of its Courvoisier brand."
Whitney said Block has significant experience in corporate strategy, business turn-around and operational management. "His skill set is complementary to our current Board of Education and we look forward to working with him," she said.
Board member Jeannie Smith said she met Block at his initial interview with the RTC last month. "From the start I was very impressed by his credentials and his business expertise, and believe he will be a strong asset to our current Board of Education," she said.