Possible cuts stun Westport's school community

WESTPORT — In what one person called an act of “fiscal terrorism,” the threat of cutting all freshman sports, staff layoffs and postponing music lessons until fifth grade are all possibilities facing school officials in a difficult budget season.

Up against $1.67 million of cuts requested by the Board of Finance, Superintendent Colleen Palmer presented $962,376 in reductions and said if the school budget is cut anymore it would have a destructive effect on student services.

“When I see the list of cuts at the bottom (cuts past the superintendent's proposal), I think they’re devastating. I think they’re devastating and you don’t recover from that,” Palmer said.

If the finance board holds firm in its request, the school budget would be reduced from $126.8 million to $125.1 million. The request stems from fiscal problems in Hartford that have made their way to Westport, including a $1.9 million loss in state education aid and the possibility of $5.9 million in teacher pension obligations pushed onto the town.

John Horrigan, president of the Westport Education Association, called the finance board’s request “fiscal terrorism.”

Finance board member James Westphal said they will take as much into consideration as possible, “but I think we still have to make some of these adjustments.”

A memorandum of understanding, if deemed legal and acceptable by the town attorneys, is in the works between the town and the schools to reduce the health reserve fund to five percent for a savings of $480,000.

Board member Vik Muktavaram proposed a motion to seek $450,000 in restoration from the Board of Finance, a number that would make Palmer have to cut the budget by $1.2 million as opposed to the full $1.67 million requested by the finance board. The motion failed 2-4 with Muktavaram and Karen Kleine voting for. Other board members, along with a packed room of school community members were insistent on no more cuts past what Palmer proposed.

More Information

New proposed cuts

Director of Assessment and Innovation ($80,000)

Security Aide ($19,497)

Some alternative reduction strategies for BOE discussion:

Third grade paraprofessionals (3.4) FTE ($155,200)

Elimination of freshman sports ($81,000)

Pay for play (students pay to participate in varsity sports, 1,200 students charged $150 each) ($180,000)

Music lessons cut from fourth grade (3 FTE) ($258,000)

FTE: Full time equivalent

“What I’m concerned about and what I can’t see myself voting for is any number beyond the palatable cuts that Dr. Palmer has proposed,” Candice Savin said.

Eliminating fourth-grade music lessons, although not imminent, could be a real possibility and is listed as an alternative mitigation strategy.

Greg Hellman, a senior at Staples High School, said the activity he most identifies with is the school symphonic band and orchestra. “I honestly can say that music has been an important element in my life, however I do not think that I would have been where I am today had I not taken the first step in the fourth grade.”

The Board of Finance will meet on April 5.