Westport BOE looks to cut superintendent's proposed budget

Superintendent Thomas Scarice speaks at a Board of Education meeting. Taken Oct. 19, 2020.

Superintendent Thomas Scarice speaks at a Board of Education meeting. Taken Oct. 19, 2020.

DJ Simmons /Hearst Connecticut Media /

WESTPORT — The Board of Education got its first look on Monday at possible cuts to reach a $125 million budget, down from the $128 million budget previously proposed.

The decrease would bring Superintendent Thomas Scarice’s proposal for nearly a 5 percent increase from the current budget to 3 percent, a target previously floated by the BOE.

Scarice said the current services budget and the impact of COVID-19 alone were major contributors to the increase, leading administration to find creative ways to find reductions.

“We tried to retain as much of current programming as possible,” Scarice said.

Administration outlined $2.4 million in possible cuts to hit the target 3 percent increase, with them separated into three tiers based on importance.

Elio Longo, chief financial officer, said the first tier of reductions would see no new equipment purchased for the new year. The second tier removed 13 full-time equivalent (FTE) teachers and the third tier saw five more FTE staff cut, including one elementary assistant principal.

“If you were to adopt and implement recommendations in tier one and tier two the superintendent’s proposed budget would be revised at a net 2.93 percent increase,” Longo said.

Scarice said while he wouldn’t recommend the cuts he understood the modeling needed to be done to find possible reductions.

“I think it’s really important that we acknowledge there’s economic pressures and an economic climate, and we understand the reality of it,” Scarice said. “This year has been a lot about difficult decisions and this is yet another one.”

But he cautioned the BOE that making some of the changes outlined could have consequential trade-offs.

BOE members questioned projected costs in health insurance as well as a comparison on the amount of assistants at other schools within its District Reference Group.

BOE member Elaine Whitney said she would prefer to look at major programmatic changes from an educational merit point of view.

“My strong, strong preference as a board member is to look at those outside of the budget process,” Whitney said. “And if they have budget implications — whether an increase or a decrease — to then reflect those during the budget process.”

BOE member Lee Goldstein said she would like to discuss accessing money that wasn’t spent last year.

“I know that’s not a sustainable way of doing a budget but in so far as we’re going to be doing this strategic and looking at bigger savings, and structural strategies, it may be a one time offset that I would support,” Goldstein said.

She said she could find her way to supporting the faculty and staff cuts proposed in tier two, although she would still like to learn more.

BOE Chair Candice Savin said similar to last year the BOE had “a bit of a hump to get over this year.”

“Last year it was re-staffing for Coleytown Middle School,” Savin said. “This year we have kind of a hump to get over and one of the main reasons is the influx of students and the hiring of seven additional teachers, which if we didn’t have that, the budget gap year-over-year would not be as large.”

She said she expects another bump next year.

“One of the main things to keep in mind is that we want to be able to absorb that without decimating another area,” Savin said. “I feel an obligation to really sharpen our pencils and do the very best we can, but I don’t feel an obligation to get to 3 percent by any means.”

The BOE will review the budget again at its meeting on Feb. 1.

dj.simmons@hearstmediact.com