Board of Education heeds call to cut budget, trims nearly $700,000
WESTPORT — As the school’s budget is being reviewed by the Board of Finance, the Board of Education is continuing its work to make cuts and bring the total increase down.
At the Board of Education’s Monday meeting, Superintendent of Schools Colleen Palmer and Director of School Business Operations Elio Longo laid out changes in the proposed 2018-2019 budget that would result in $689,712 in savings.
The bulk of those savings, $400,000, are achievable by fast-tracking supplies and facilities project's — including the purchase of hardware for the technology department, cleaning supplies and making upgrades to master clock and fire systems — to the current budget year, thanks to a surplus.
“That’s not really changing what we were planning on doing next year, it’s just accelerating it into this year. So we’re not really reducing maintenance or the things that would be done, it’s just we’re having better than expected performance and so we’re able to move those to this year,” board member Mark Mathias said.
Additionally, $245,000 was saved in the upcoming year’s budget thanks to a negotiated 5-year contract with the district’s bus provider Dattco, as well as more long-term savings.
Upcoming budget meetings
Board of Finance plans to vote on school budget April 18
Board of Finance will set the tax rate on May 16
Representative Town Meeting is expected to take up the budget at meetings on May 7, 8, 9
“The four remaining years, there are additional possibly $290,000 of cost avoidance,” Longo told the board, who voted unanimously on the new contract.
Another roughly $44,000 came out of employee negotiations around worker’s compensation.
With the cuts, the new total school budget would be down to $118,223,800, or a 3.36 percent increase year-over-year. The cuts come after a Board of Finance meeting in late-March at which members expressed that the education budget as it stood, at a nearly four percent year-over-year increase, had to be cut.
Palmer said that the district is in the middle of ongoing discussions with its seven bargaining units to transfer members to the state health insurance plan for “cost containment,” but no agreement has been reached at this point.
“Failure to have resolution as this budget moves forward will put increased pressure on the budget being adopted as recommended this evening. We will continue to do our due diligence,” Palmer said.
Finance board response
The Board of Finance met Wednesday to discuss the revised education budget and, despite the cuts, had harsh criticisms of the board’s strategy, or lack thereof, of containing education costs.
“We’re hiring people who have more years of experience. That’s a big issue,” Board of Finance member James Westphal said, critiquing the number of current and new hires who start at a higher pay scale because of their education level and years of experience and thus cost the town more than younger and less experienced hires.
Palmer responded saying that given the teacher shortage in many subjects, such as chemistry, her administration does not always have the option to hire teachers who can start at the bottom of the pay scale.
Board of Finance member Sheri Gordon said she’s frustrated the board of education has not had more vigorous discussions about how to deal with declining student enrollment in a fiscally responsible way. “Is there a possibility of redistricting or closing one of the elementary schools?,” Gordon questioned, calling on the board of education to explore all possibilities for cutting educational costs in light of declining enrollment.
Meanwhile, board member John Hartwell said he’s frustrated the board of education’s recent recommendation to add school resource officers was not included in the education budget. Funds for the school officers will come out of the police budget, Hartwell said, but wished Palmer and her team incorporated the proposed cost of the SRO’s into the budget because the board of finance already approved the police budget and wants to be aware of all potential costs so as not to be forced to raise the mill rate. “We have to understand in total what it is we’re being asked,” Hartwell said.
The Board of Finance plans to vote on the education at its April 18 meeting.
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