Westport officials asked to create budget with no COVID impact

Coleytown Middle School is scheduled to reopen on January 4. The school has been closed since 2018 because of mold problems.

Coleytown Middle School is scheduled to reopen on January 4. The school has been closed since 2018 because of mold problems.

Chris Marquette / Hearst Connecticut Media

WESTPORT — As the number of cases continue to climb, the Board of Finance is tasking officials to create budgets not impacted by COVID, beginning with the upcoming fiscal year.

In a joint discussion with the Board of Education and other town officials, finance board members recommended sticking to strategic plans set before the COVID crisis.

BOF Chair Brian Stern said the reality is the state is in the middle of a severe recession.

“Who knows how long this will last and what will be the impact to our great town for the longer term,” Stern said. “Economically, it’s rather worrying.”

But compared to other regional communities, he said the town’s finances were in good shape. This came as a result of the town reaping the benefits from recently bargained contracts, such as pension obligations and Other Post-Employment Benefits, or OPEB.

“The reserves are robust, our pension and OPEB are well funded, and our financial controls and disciplines are solid,” Stern said.

He said a major concern for him was the impact of the state on the town, which he described as “in a financial state of malaise.” Stern said all town departments are being asked to assume the COVID crisis will not impact the plans of 2022.

“This is a simplifying assumption, but it’s an important one,” he said, adding it was also a bold assumption but made it easier to put the focus on a normal recovery.

BOE member Lee Goldstein said the board is excited to begin visionary work and collaborating strategically with the town. She added it was important on a prosaic level for people to understand the effects of COVID would not end on June 30.

“There’s 5,000 children who have a lot of needs and we have a lot of staff who have needs,” she said. “There’s going to be profound need there that is still an effect of COVID.”

The town and school district have faced several shifts in the past few years from a change in superintendents, to a mold problem that eventually closed Coleytown Middle School.

But a return to some form of normal may be in the near future. CMS Building Committee Chair Don O’Day said Colytown is expected to reopen for staff and students on Jan. 4.

“CMS is going to be an awesome school,” O’Day said in his update to the school board. “I’m confident it’s going to be well loved by students and staff, and it’s going to be a draw into the district.”

The rising cost per pupil in town remained a concern for BOF members. Stern said the cost has gone up 28 percent in the last five years from $18,000 per student in 2014, to $23,000 in 2021.

He said this would need to be addressed before the trend becomes unsustainable and recommended a 1 to 1.5 percent overall increase as a budget target.

BOF members echoed similar concerns with some saying they needed to discuss efficiencies.

“I do hope we’re going to be entering a period of stability and we can go back to discussing some of the topics we’ve discovered over the last several years,” BOF Vice Chair Andrea Moore said.

These topics included building maintenance and shared services between the town and schools.

BOE member Karen Kleine voiced concern for how potential cuts may affect the schools with 80 percent of the budget already set due to payroll. She noted the recent real estate boom in town was in large part due to families wanting to enroll their kids in the town’s schools.

“I don’t know how much longer we can continue to be number one if we’re cutting back on what we spend on our students, and trying to maintain things at the same time,” she said.

dj.simmons@hearstmediact.com