Westport BOF approves budget without restoring schools, transit funds

Photo of Katrina Koerting
Westport Superintendent Thomas Scarice at a school board meeting on Monday. Taken Oct. 5, 2020.

Westport Superintendent Thomas Scarice at a school board meeting on Monday. Taken Oct. 5, 2020.

DJ Simmons/Hearst Connecticut Media

WESTPORT — The Board of Finance’s budget is going on to the Representative Town Meeting without any money restored for the schools or transit district, despite pleas from both.

The finance board approved a nearly $218.5 million budget, which is about $5.5 million — or nearly 2.6 percent — more than the current year. It includes $77.1 million for the town and $135.4 million for schools, once debt service and other expenses are added to the Board of Education’s $125.6 million budget.

It also includes a $157,000 cut to the transit district’s budget and about $1.3 million to the schools’ request, though some of that is due to changes in the health care costs. This leaves an actual cut of about $975,000, but still an overall increase to the school budget of about $3.97 million, or 3 percent.

School officials plan to use federal grants to cover the bulk of that, and asked the finance board to restore $235,000 to help close the gap.

“This is not the time to cut corners,” Board of Education Chairwoman Candice Savin told the finance board.

She and Superintendent Thomas Scarice said the district had already cut the budget before bringing it to the finance board and the only place left to get this $235,000 was in personnel and programs. Scarice said there were still a lot of unknowns.

The Board of Education adopted a nearly $127 million budget in February, cutting about $1 million from Scarice’s proposal. This budget was about $5 million, or 4.1 percent, more than the current year. New health care estimates from the state health insurance plan brought that budget down to $126.6 million.

The Board of Finance then set it at $125.6 million.

None of the finance board members moved to restore the schools’ $235,000 request, nor the transit district’s cut.

Several members said it was time to rethink how the transit district operated and this was a good opportunity to reset. Some members also called the school’s request “frivolous” because it broke down to about 0.02 percent of the overall budget and was creating unnecessary tension in the public, pitting the schools and finance board against each other.

“If I switched it around and said we’re approving 99.8 percent of your budget, there would be a cheer,” BOF Chairman Brian Stern said. “Instead, it turned into a negative.”

Finance board members said the $235,000 is generally unspent in the budget at the end of the year but the school board could come back if needed for a special appropriation.

“We have your backs,” finance board member Lee Caney said.