A $121,653,502 education spending package for 2014-15 -- including a $109,202,984 operating budget -- won easy approval Tuesday night from the Representative Town Meeting, but not before lengthy debate over a proposed $200,000 cut. The new operating budget is 4.82 percent -- $5 million --more than current spending.
The vote was 32-2, with one abstention.
It took three hours of debate, however, before the RTM took a vote on the budget, which in addition to operating costs includes $130,368 for special education costs, $321,747 for aid to private schools and $11,998,403 for debt service, according to Elio Longo, director of school business operations.
The school budget approval came a day after the legislative body approved the $76.6 million municipal side of the spending package for the new fiscal year, producing an overall budget of $198,249,184. The Board of Finance later this month will set the tax rate to fund the new budget, which takes effect July 1.
There was a lengthy debate Tuesday concerning a proposed $200,000 reduction in the schools' operating budget, a motion made by RTM member Rick Weber of District 9. "I support a vibrant school system," Weber said. But he added he "wimped out" during the RTM Finance committee vote on the budget where he voted to approve it.
He said the Board of Education needs to "slow down" and would like to see next fiscal year's budget with a 3 percent increase, instead of more than 4 percent.
Superintendent of Schools Elliot Landon quickly responded: "There's not much to do with transportation or insurance costs." Landon added that the number of school secretaries and custodians has been cut "to the bone."
"I won't recommend we cut teachers," he said, adding the staff is "down to the lowest level." And, he said, special education staff cannot be reduced since it is mandated by state law.
"So where is the low-lying fruit?" Landon asked. "I would never cry wolf and I won't say we would cut sports -- that would be fool-hardy," he said. But, he added, "I would recommend cutting bus monitors. With a significant cut, you have to make choices."
RTM member Lois Schine of District 8 said that if bus monitors have to go, it would fall on the PTA, adding that organization "could get parents to volunteer" for the job. That suggestion, however, elicited groans from PTA members seated in the audience.
"I spoke last night about the quality of life in Westport," said RTM member Stephen Rubin of District 7, who gave the invocation at Monday's meeting when the legislative body voted on the municipal side of the budget.
"I can't think of any quality of life more important than the safety of school children," he said. "Does anyone know the name of Holly Finley?" he asked. "Her head went under the wheels of a school bus as her father watched," he said of the 1991 incident. "And you are asking to get rid of bus monitors."
Rubin said he and former First Selectman Gordon Joseloff became the town's first monitors riding local school buses in the wake of 8-year-old Holly's death, caused when a drawstring on her jacket became tangled in a railing as she got off a bus at her driveway. "We made $9 a trip, but we knew that every parent could hug their children that night."
RTM member Lyn Hogan, District 3, agreed with Rubin. "Bus monitors are needed," she said. "I don't think that's an acceptable cut."
RTM member John Suggs, District 5, said he was "very disappointed"' with Landon's response. "The answer I would have expected was, `If that's the will of the town, we will take that cut and find the most efficient, humane way to cut the budget," Suggs said. "Instead what we got was institutionalized bullying" from Landon. "I apologize to every bus monitor -- for all those of you who hold that job and take care of our children every day."
RTM member Don Bergmann of District 1 said he had suggested a $200,000 cut in an April 4 memo. He said that's the same amount the Board of Finance considered cutting from the education budget prior to approving it 4-3 in March.
Weber refused to withdraw his motion and it was voted down, 28-7.