WESTPORT — The school budget must be cut.

That was the message to Superintendent Colleen Palmer from the Board of Finance at its March 15 meeting. While the finance board did not specify an exact amount to be trimmed from the education budget, members clearly indicated that an almost 4 percent year-over-year increase was way too high.

“I think, unfortunately, the rate of increase has gotten so large that it is something we really have to focus on,” BOF member Sheri Gordon said.

The Board of Education approved the $118,913,712 budget in January. At the March 15 meeting, BOE vice chairwoman Jeannie Smith said the school board is still looking for cost savings and hopes it will have a different number before the BOF officially votes on the education budget.

The 3.97 percent increase over the current year’s budget, the superintendent explained to the finance board, is largely caused by a health insurance “iceberg” created last budget season when the board pulled $1.5 million from the health insurance reserves to balance the budget and were then hit with unpredictably high insurance claims.

Another reason for the hike, Palmer said, is a request for funding to add a second literacy coach at the middle-school level, where she said 10 percent of students are not reading at grade level. A literacy coach will help cut the number of students not reading at grade level in half, Palmer said.

About 19 percent of the education budget is allocated toward special education. The rise in students identified as special education students has increased over time — 11.1 percent of Westport students qualify for special education services — and has added to education funding constraints, Palmer said.

Funding for five school resource officers was not included in the education budget, but Palmer said she is recommending a team of five SROs be added to the schools in an effort to ensure safety in light of recent school shootings, which would increase the education budget further.

BOF Chairman Brian Stern said the federal government’s elimination of state and local tax deductions means close to $400 million in taxes paid by Westport residents is no longer tax-deductible, and the education budget must be cut to control costs.

“This is not the right year for the Board of Finance to recommend a tax increase, and I would say there’s a high probability we won’t recommend a tax increase. So that means, clearly, we can’t have spending going up at the rate of 3 or 4 percent a year and have tax rates stay the same,” Stern said.

Last year, resident Robert Harrington, who has four children in Westport schools, lobbied the Representative Town Meeting to restore money for education cut by the BOF. At the March 15 budget meeting in Long Lots auditorium, however, Harrington said Palmer has asked for too much spending for the upcoming fiscal year.

“I just feel that after some of the arguments were made last year, it would be great to see, not a reduction in school spending, but a lower or moderate increase,” Harrington said.

Palmer defended her proposed budget, saying the work of her administration has not yielded short-term savings and reductions, but will hopefully bring savings in the long term.

“It is my long-term goal that as we reduce the number of students behind grade level, we may not need the same resources. I have a system right now where my responsibility is to take care of every child. It is not this point in time that I can make dramatic reductions,” she said. “As we ramp up our system and empower our leaders to put in place all I believe and know they can with their talents and commitment, I think you’re going to see more.”

The BOF will again discuss, and potentially vote, on the education budget April 4.

svaughan@hearstmediact.com; 203-842-2638; @SophieCVaughan1