Westport school officials prepare for challenging budget season

Schools Chief Financial Officer Elio Longo.

Schools Chief Financial Officer Elio Longo.

Chris Marquette / Hearst Connecticut Media

WESTPORT — Technology demands and building on special education services will be some of the biggest challenges school officials will face as they head into the budget season.

Superintendent Thomas Scarice also echoed the Board of Finance’s request to approach the budget process as if it were a normal year to help focus on a normal recovery.

“I felt it was important for the first year for me to experience the budget process as you have done it,” Scarice said in a school board meeting Monday. “There are enough projects and challenges and tasks that this was not something that I felt that I could take on, nor should I, without experiencing it and what strengths there are to build off of before I question practices.”

He said school officials have had conversations on funding possibilities, and what requirements will be needed to maintain status quo at a minimum. He added the town has also sent strong signals of supporting the schools and has been collaborative throughout the pandemic.

“But I will say right now I do feel a sense of preservation when it comes to presenting a budget to the board for next month to review,” Scarice said, adding there were standards school officials looked to uphold.

He said challenges that will need to be addressed during the budget season include the lunch program, technological demands and special education services.

Elio Longo, chief financial officer, said the typical year-to-year challenges also remains. This includes salaries, benefits and other contractual obligations that make up 85 percent of the budget.

“The ability to draw against reserve funds will be limited next fiscal year,” Longo said.

This comes as the district may see an operating loss in the cafeteria fund. Longo said the district draws $200,000 per year for custodial services. This year the cafeteria fund ended on June 30 with a balance of $591,000, but it saw a loss of $244,000 from August to October.

“So when you have an operating fund balance of approximately $600,000 and a projected deficit — worst-case scenario for the year — of $600,000 we lose the ability to draw an extra $200,000 not only this year for the custodial services, but that will likely go away under next year’s budget,” he said.

This could also create a constraint on the district’s ability to minimize the budget impact year-over-year with available fund balances, Longo said.

Scarice said as officials enter budget deliberations there will be opportunities to make guiding judgments, and chances to make considerations based on proposals.

“I really do think preservation and preserving what we have the best we can is a conservative approach for now,” he said. “To really take the whole system and have a strategy in place is something I really look forward to, but for this year coming up just preserving what we have and trying to move forward incrementally.”