Signaling an increasingly tense budget season, the Board of Education voted Monday night not to renew nearly 150 non-tenured teachers' contracts for next year.

The move came at the request of Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon, who recommended the action to prepare for potentially large cuts to the school board's proposed 2011-12 budget by the Board of Finance or the Representative Town Meeting.

"This keeps all our options open," he said. "We have no idea what the extent of the budget reductions will be, if any."

Not renewing the non-tenured teachers' contracts gives Landon more latitude to respond to budget cuts than otherwise laying off contracted personnel. Laid-off teachers can request a hearing with the Board of Education to contest their termination, while non-tenured employees are not entitled to such an appeal.

Strongly opposed by Kathy Sharp, president of the Westport teachers union, the non-renewal action is a rare episode of contention during a generally amicable budget season for the Board of Education. After the RTM last November rejected new union contracts for firefighters and municipal employees, the teacher non-renewal appeared to open up another fault line between town officials and union members.

Landon sent out letters to non-tenured teachers earlier this month to advise them of his plan not to renew their contracts, a development that Sharp said had damaged all teachers' morale.

"Especially in the context of wider attacks on teachers in the last month or so ... the effect has really been devastating," she said. "I think it's left Westport teachers with a great sense of uncertainty and foreboding."

The non-renewal of teachers' contracts, however, is not uncommon, with substitute teachers' contracts expiring on a yearly basis. But a decision not to renew the contracts of regular teachers who lack contracts has not occurred in 25 years, according to Landon.

Non-tenured Westport public school teachers number about 140, accounting for approximately 30 percent of the district's total teacher count. The town has a total of almost 900 education employees, whose salaries and benefits account for approximately 80 percent of the Board of Education's proposed 2011-12 budget of $98.3 million.

Landon added that those non-tenured teachers who are rehired will get the same terms of their current contracts, with no impact on their salaries, benefits, or years of service accrued toward tenure. New teachers gain tenure after four years in Westport public schools, while those with previous experience in other districts are eligible for tenure sooner.

Board of Education Human Resources Director Marge Cion told the Westport News that the rehiring process will be "informal" with teachers emailing her to indicate their interest in retaining their positions. The official rehiring of non-tenured teachers will likely take place after the RTM votes on the education budget in May.

Landon told the Westport News that the school district could rehire all of the non-tenured teachers if the Board of Education's budget is not significantly cut by the Board of Finance or the RTM. But if cuts are significant, Landon said he would consult with school principals on which non-tenured teachers' contracts would not be renewed.

The Board of Education voted 6-1 for the non-renewal, with Mark Mathias casting the dissenting vote. Board Chairman Don O'Day said he did not view the non-renewal as a hostile move against Westport teachers.

"I think that this action is in no way reflective of the inappropriate national trend to bash teachers," he said. "It's procedural."

The Board of Finance will vote on the Board of Education's proposed 2011-12 budget on Thursday night at Town Hall before the budget moves on to the RTM for final approval.