A $104.2 million school budget for 2013-14 won unanimous Board of Education approval Monday, a spending package more than $1 million less than proposed last month by Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon.
The board's recommended operating budget would raise spending by about $4 million over this year's $100.2 million budget, a 3.95 percent increase in expenditures. Landon had initially proposed a $105.4 million budget with a 5.15 percent spending increase.
In approving their recommended budget, Board of Education members made several reductions to Landon's proposed budget, most of which will not affect academic programs. Those budget adjustments include a $500,000 reduction to Landon's proposed allocation next year to the school district's health-insurance reserves. The 2013-14 budget will now allot only about $500,000 to those reserves, but the school district's current reserve levels will not be affected by that board action.
Board members also pondered cutting spending for technology and supplies.
"This board couldn't be more supportive of the technology we need to deliver in education," said board member Jennifer Tooker. "The issue is the cost is rising a lot."
The budget approved by the board allocates about $1.1 million for technology equipment spending. About $1 million is designated for technology-equipment this year.
The board eventually decided to approve a general $50,000 reduction, which will be accounted for in the school district's supplies/materials or equipment budgets. School district administrators will decide the line items affected by that deduction.
That $50,000 cut could lead to families being asked to share some school-supply expenses, a scenario that elicited a lukewarm reaction from parents and school district administrators at Monday's meeting.
"When we're thinking about cutting pencils and erasers and basic school supplies versus any other things that might be cut, I would just really caution us and think about that it is a nice thing that all children can come in on a level playing field," said Lily Bloomingdale, the mother of three children who attend Long Lots Elementary School.
"The last thing we ever touch [in the budget] is anything that affects kids directly," Landon replied.
Board of Education members found more support for their decision to allocate about $147,000 to upgrade the wi-fi infrastructure at Staples High School, Kings Highway Elementary School and Coleytown Elementary School.
Parents also welcomed board members' decision to add $81,000 to the budget for additional teaching staff to accommodate smaller second-grade class sizes.
Other budget adjustments, meanwhile, were made with little debate. The board also cut $127,000 from Landon's proposed budget equal to a one-time rebate the school district has received related to retired education employees' health-insurance costs.
A higher-than-expected reimbursement rate from the state for special-education expenditures also allowed the board to cut an additional $100,000 from Landon's proposed budget.
Finally, the education panel cut $52,000 to offset an error that had shifted that amount into Landon's proposed budget to pay for half a special-education teacher's salary. That $52,000 is instead covered by a grant.
Board members signaled their intent in recent weeks to approve a budget the consider frugal to ward off potentially larger cuts to the proposed spending package by the Board of Finance or the Representative Town Meeting. That approach mirrors their strategy a year ago, when the board's then-Chairman Don O'Day persuaded the education panel to approve a 2.2 percent spending increase compared to the 2.5 percent budget hike proposed last year by Landon.
In an interview with the Westport News after Monday's meeting, Landon indicated support for the education board's endorsed 2013-14 budget.
"I think the Board of Education has acted with the best interests of the kids and the taxpayers," he said. "I think they made some difficult, but wise choices and I think both the kids and the taxpayers will be well-served by their decisions."
Landon warned, however, of the potential impact of further reductions to next year's budget.
"I think further cuts would really hurt us," he said. "I'm hopeful that the Board of Finance and the RTM will see the diligence with which the board has worked."
The Board of Education's proposed 2013-14 budget will be reviewed and voted on by the Board of Finance next month before facing a final vote by the RTM in May.
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