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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

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School budget deficit to force spending spike in 2014-15 plan

Published 8:04 am, Tuesday, January 7, 2014

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  • Board of Education chairman, Elaiine Whitney, center, outlines plans for an ad hoc committee to deal with an anticipated shortfall in the current school budget during Monday night's education board meeting at Staples High School. On the left is Board member, Jeannie Smith and on the right is Superintendent Elliot Landon. Photo: Anne M. Amato / Westport News
    Board of Education chairman, Elaiine Whitney, center, outlines plans for an ad hoc committee to deal with an anticipated shortfall in the current school budget during Monday night's education board meeting at Staples High School. On the left is Board member, Jeannie Smith and on the right is Superintendent Elliot Landon. Photo: Anne M. Amato

 

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The nearly $2 million projected shortfall in the Board of Education's budget is expected to trigger a spike in the school budget for the coming fiscal year, Superintendent of Schools Elliot Landon told board members Monday night.

"This is the first time in 15 years, in preparing a budget, that I am forced to deal with shortfalls," said Landon. He said the deficit will have to be covered by higher spending in the 2014-15 budget -- which he will present Friday -- to 6.5 percent overall.

Without the shortfall in the district's health insurance spending, as well as $750,000 in "safety net" money, the new budget request would have risen about 4.3 percent, he said.

Landon also told the board that he has begun to look at ways to partially fund the anticipated shortfall. After taking a "careful look," he said, "we can contribute $200,000" from the current budget.

This, he said, would be in savings "in the cost of utilities, in the area of instructional and non-instructional supplies" and by limiting the number of school personnel attending conferences. However, he did admit the $200,000 would be saved "pretty much in utilities and supplies."

"I think the Board of Finance needs to see we are making legitimate attempts" at making up the health costs deficit and the finance board would "maybe give a supplemental appropriation to reduce the impact of the increase next year,," Landon said.

Board members still aren't certain of the exact amount of the shortfall, initially estimated at $1,988,709.

In order to get an accurate figure, board Chairwoman Elaine Whitney recommended Monday night -- and the board unanimously approved -- the establishment of an ad hoc committee to investigate the issue.

Called the Health Insurance Fund Review Committee, the group's primary goal will be to compile accurate information about the shortfall, in a timely fashion, and present recommendations to the full board, she said.

This would include confirming the nature and extent of the shortfall, and find its cause and make recommendations for remedial action that could include hiring an external auditor, something the board has already approved, if needed.

The committee, Whitney said, would also prepare a "comprehensive report," including recommendations on how to avoid the problem in the future.

Whitney appointed board members Brett Aronow, who will also serve as committee chairwoman, Karen Kleine and Paul Block to the committee, as well as Elio Longo, the school district's business administrator. A fifth member, a resident, will also be named, she said.

Whitney told the board this is time to "roll up the sleeves and get it done."

She said she "strongly encourages" members of other town boards, such as finance and selectmen, to send a liaison to the ad hoc committee meetings. "I'd like their active involvement," she said.

The anticipated shortfall has been attributed by education officials, in large part, to underfunding the health insurance fund for school district employees. The shortfall was uncovered by Longo who brought it to Landon's attention on Nov. 20.

"From an administrative point of view, there were serious errors in information recording in doing the budget" for the current academic year, Landon told the Board of Finance during a meeting last month.

He said that while there was a "poor job of budgeting, nothing illegal occurred." He admitted there were "some gross errors, but no malfeasance."

Landon plans to present his proposed 2014-15 budget Friday beginning at 8:30 a.m. in the McManus Room of the Westport Library.

The public can attend the session. Whitney said officials will review the spending plan "line item by line item," a process that will last well into the afternoon.