Landon's budget, unveiled at Monday's Board of Education meeting, asks for about $5.2 million more than current school spending, the largest dollar and percentage increases in education funding for the town's schools in the last five years. A number of financial pressures and the need to maintain high-quality school services warranted the larger spending hike, Landon argued.
"This budget is not only educationally sound, it's also fiscally conservative," Landon said. "It continues to support what we've been doing. It enables us to make some enhancements for instructional programs and it continues to support the work that our teachers and administrators have undertaken and continue to work at."
Constrained by the slow economic climate, education budget growth during recent years has been modest. If Landon's budget were passed without changes, the school district's annual spending increases during the last five years would average 2.3 percent. In line with that average, the school board last year approved a $100.2 million operating budget that raised spending by $2.1 million, a 2.17 percent increase. The Board of Finance and Representative Town Meeting passed that budget without reductions.
Education officials have facilitated those limited spending increases through a range of cost-cutting measures in recent years, such as elimination of a number of administrative and "quasi-administrative" positions, cuts in teaching and support staff numbers, the elimination of certain secretarial and paraprofessional positions, and scaled-back building maintenance spending. Now, there is no more "low-hanging fruit" left to pluck for savings, Landon argues.
"I wish I could have brought it in at a lower level," the superintendent said of his proposed budget, "but there comes a point at which you can't get blood from a stone."
Westport education officials are also grappling with other fiscal commitments, which include unfunded state mandates, expanding wireless access in the district's elementary schools, increasing costs for out-of-district placements for students with special needs, inflationary increases tied to employee health-insurance plans, and large increases in worker's compensation and unemployment insurance expenditures related to school personnel layoffs in recent years.
Employee salaries account for 67 percent of Landon's proposed budget, while workers' benefits take up another 15 percent. Another 9 percent goes to a variety of purchased services, 5 percent to property services, 2.5 percent to supplies, about 1 percent to equipment spending and half-a-percent for other expenditures.
School board members did not comment on the budget during Monday's meeting. Instead, several of them indicated that they would begin to share their views on Landon's spending request during an all-day budget review scheduled to start at 8:30 a.m. Friday in the Westport Public Library.
No audience members commented on Landon's proposed budget during Monday's meeting.
In an interview after the meeting, Board of Education Chairwoman Elaine Whitney expressed support for Landon's fiscal objectives.
"Dr. Landon worked extremely hard to bring in a budget in as fiscally responsible a manner as he could, but recognizing that we have had extremely lean budgets for the last several years," she said. "Even maintaining our existing programs is very difficult to achieve with the levels that we've had."
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