Financiers push for innovative solutions in Westport BOE budget

WESTPORT — As the district prepares for its budget season, the town’s financiers look to see an innovative, forward-thinking education plan.

Members of the Representative Town Meeting and Board of Finance joined the Board of Education on Monday in preliminary discussions for such a plan, for what is predicted to be a challenging budget season.

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“I think it’s important we remember what a budget is about,” BOF Chairman Brian Stern said. “It’s about making decisions in an environment of limited funds...and number two, having the basis to communicate that to everybody.”

Stern noted Westport was a part of a select group of towns with a good education system and tax base, including Darien, New Canaan and Greenwich, which have low mill rates.

However, a combination of the state and local taxes, transportation costs and the transportation time have contributed to challenges for towns like Westport.

“My suspicion is cities are becoming more attractive on an economic basis to live in than necessarily suburban places have been in the past,” Stern said.

To this end, he said an attractive school system and steady low taxes were key in continuing to attract people to town.

“Most important for me — particularly given the demographics and the state of our facilities — I’d like to say when we finish this in May that this is the first step of a three-year plan of where we want to go,” Stern said.

With Coleytown Middle School on schedule to open in August 2020, the BOE budget faces a natural increase to restore previously eliminated positions. This includes adding six core teachers and an assistant principal and more for a reported total of $1,094,792, or 0.93% of the operating budget.

The move back to two middle schools alongside salary increases will play a role in an education budget that could increase by over 5%, according to chief financial officer Elio Longo.

BOE Chairman Candice Savin said efficiencies gained from combining the town’s middle schools will be lost once the district returns to two middle schools.

“It creates an extra challenge this year that we haven’t had in the past that we have to navigate our way through,” she said.

BOF member Sheri Gordon noted despite a difficult year, the Westport school district was still ranked at the top in the state.

“That really has to deal with the heart of our education system, which is our teachers,” Gordon said. “We hire the best, we train them, we maintain them and that’s the heart of our schools.”

While redistricting will be held off for at least another year, Gordon floated the idea of approaching the topic in the future, similar to a tax reassessment. The town could address the issue every five years, which Gordon said allows people time to prepare for it.

She added it was important to push the envelope and differentiate Westport’s education system from other towns.

“Let’s invest in greatness,” Gordon said. “Let’s really invest in a plan that is going to take our schools into the 2020s and 2030s and make us really great.”

Other BOF members discussed the importance of trade-offs, prioritization in facilities and planning five years out.

RTM Moderator Velma Heller said the funding bodies are all involved in a complex balancing act, and that flexible spending plans are necessary to accomodate growing costs.

“In a time where there are unknowns, you need to think of being flexible and adjusting when you have to,” Heller said. “It doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a negative. It’s just a way of doing business until you know more about what’s going on.”

Savin noted the district needs both a short-term plan, and a more visionary long-term plan.

“We do not have that long-term plan right now. We do not have the educational leadership we need in place to get there,” she said. “I’m thinking a lot about how we get there and how we get it going right away. But I do think we need that input from our new superintendent when that leadership arrives.”