Local activist asks Westport school board to reassess approved budget

Photo of Justin Papp
Robert Harrington, who is requesting the school board tighten their budget, speaks at a December meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission in Westport, Conn.
Robert Harrington, who is requesting the school board tighten their budget, speaks at a December meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission in Westport, Conn.Sophie Vaughan / Hearst Connecticut Media

WESTPORT — Last year, Robert Harrington successfully campaigned to have money restore to the Board of Education budget. This year, he feels the school board has asked for too much spending.

Before March 2017, Harrington had never attended a Board of Education or Board of Finance meeting.

He had been to sports events and concerts in which his four children, all in Westport public schools, had been a part of, but that was the extent of his own involvement in the schools.

That all changed quickly when he, and other Westport parents, received a letter home from the Board of Education and Superintendent of Schools that spoke of potential cuts to music programs and some freshman sports as a result of the Board of Finance requesting $1.7 million be cut from the schools’ budget.

“I was really kind of angered over what was happening and the fact that it was happening to the superintendent on her first year,” said Harrington, referring to Superintendent of Schools Colleen Palmer, who started in 2016.

Harrington sprung into action, beginning a petition to reinstate $1.3 million of the funds — which collected over 2,000 signatures — and setting out to learn the budget process, and to meet the legislators in town who might have a say in it.

He called private meetings with school board members, members of the Board of Finance, and Representative Town Meeting (RTM) members to express his concern and, ultimately, was able to convince enough members of the RTM that $390,000 — the finance board had previously reinstated $310,000, but rejected a request by the Board of Education for more dollars put back — of the money should be reinstated to overturn the cuts instituted by the Board of Finance.

Harrington has since become an outspoken fixture at public meetings and speaks regularly before the Board of Education. This year, rather than advocate for more education spending, he’s speaking out against the budget approved by the board for what he considers its excesses, in the hopes of avoiding a situation similar to last year’s.

As approved by the Board of Education, the $118,913,715 spending plan represents just under a 4 percent increase over the current year’s budget, much of which is money the board hopes to use to replenish a health insurance “iceberg” created last budget season when the board elected to pull $1.5 million from the health insurance reserves to balance the budget and were then hit with unpredictably-high insurance claims. The board has used the iceberg to justify the 4 percent increase.

Board of Finance Chairman Brian Stern stated at a January meeting of the Board of Education, at which the 2018-19 budget was presented, that his board had a goal to keep the town’s mill rate flat and that much work needed to be done on the school budget.

Since that time, the Board of Education has cut $265,487 from its budget. Harrington, however, feels it may not be enough.

“Last year, the Board of Finance was effectively made out to come out looking like the bad guys,” Harrington said. “I just don’t think it’s a great situation to end up there every year. Looking forward, I had been hopeful when we got into future budget rounds that the Board of Education ask and what the Board of Finance were ultimately thinking was much closer.”

In particular, Harrington is concerned about an increase in the number of school employees by 3.5 full-time equivalents. An FTE is the hours worked by one employee on a full-time basis. The increase is the first in three years and a net staff cost of $226,131.

Harrington said he sees the logic in adding more staff and supports filling in educational gaps in the schools, but has an issue with the “optics” of the increase as there has been a decrease in enrollment and is encouraging the board to look elsewhere in the budget for cuts that would negate the staffing increase.

“If that’s what the data is showing, if that’s what your incremental priority is, then try and find something else in the system to compensate for that,” Harrington said.

Harrington said he may start a petition again and has been meeting with members of Board of Education and the RTM, which is the body that will ultimately approve the document, and is requesting the school board take another look at the budget with an eye toward making further cuts before it passes to the Board of Finance in March.

Board of Education Chairman Michael Gordon did not say definitively whether or not the board would address Harrington’s concerns or reassess the budget — which was passed Jan. 25 — at its next meeting, Feb. 26.

“As we have for the past three years, we view the budget process as ongoing, continually looking for efficiencies and seeking new opportunities for savings with our vendors. Our goal is to be as lean as possible by the time our budget is finalized in the spring,” said Gordon.

justin.papp@scni.com; @justinjpapp1