WESTPORT — Though it’s early in the season, budget projections from the Westport School District show a potential 4.9 percent increase in costs over last year’s $114,377,784 budget.
“This number on the page already reflects many reductions that we’ve made from requests of our educators,” Superintendent Colleen Palmer said at Monday’s meeting of the Board of Education.
Members of the boards of Finance and Selectmen and of the Representative Town Meeting’s Education and Finance committees were invited to attend and begin the budget conversation that will continue through the spring.
“This is not the final number to bring forward to the board, but tonight was an opportunity to bring forward kind of a realistic estimate of where we are in the budget process,” Palmer said.
Several town officials spoke on the high opening figure and noted that in light of the state’s dire fiscal condition — and continued uncertainty in terms of municipal aid — the school board number would have to come down.
“We’ve got some work to do,” Board of Finance Chairman Brian Stern said. He said despite enrollment in the district staying flat, the district’s spending between 2013 and 2016 increased 10 percent cumulatively. The town’s spending went up four percent in that same period.
“There has been a movement in terms of allocation of scarce tax funds toward the Board of Ed. Those are decisions the community made consciously, but it is again a fact that we have to be sensitive to that,” Stern said, adding that residents would likely not look favorably upon a tax increase for the 2018-19 budget.
On the topic of state aid — and how much should be expected in Westport — First Selectman Jim Marpe weighed in.
“I think we should proceed with the assumption, as we did last year in the last budget cycle, that we will get nothing from the state. If we get something from the state, hooray, and we’ll find ways to use it,” Marpe said.
Palmer said because of unusually-high contractual labor costs of salaries and benefits, the budget at this point is higher than the school would’ve hoped. According to Palmer, the total cost of health insurance will increase the district’s costs by roughly 2.7 percent.
“What we wanted to do this evening, our charge was to bring forward the best information about where we are at this time,” Palmer said.
Though the message that cuts would be necessary was clearly sent, several officials were complimentary of the board and expressed desires for a smooth, civil budget review.
Chairman of the RTM Finance Committee Jeff Wieser said he was confident the Board of Education would further cut into the tentative 4.9 percent increase. Stern, too, urged the board on.
“My prayer is that you will keep performing well,” Stern said.