Westport superintendent's proposed budget adds staff to address influx of new students

Photo of Serenity Bishop
A view of Saugatuck Elementary School, which is located at 170 Riverside Avenue.

A view of Saugatuck Elementary School, which is located at 170 Riverside Avenue.

Paul Schott / Paul Schott

WESTPORT — The influx of families with school-age children moving into town during the pandemic is one of the biggest drivers for the proposed schools budget, officials said.

Superintendent Thomas Scarice is proposing a $130.3 million school budget, which is nearly 4 percent more than the current $125.6 million budget.

He said the proposed increase is needed to maintain services, as well as takes into account contractual staff raises and the need to add staff to handle the influx of new students.

“Westport was at the top of communities to experience the greatest influx of new residents, most significantly, new families with school-age children,” Scarice said. “With that comes the challenge of programming and funding for this substantial increase in school-age children.”

The district is expected to have 65 fewer students next year compared to the current 5,345 students enrolled, but despite the decrease it is more than expected, officials said.

“Our world-class faculty and support staff understand this responsibility and welcome the challenge of continuing to deliver nothing short of excellence for our families and community,” he added.

The district added 6.5 certified teachers this school year to address the effects of the pandemic. In fact, some of the key factors for the proposed increase is keeping those positions and adding five special education paraprofessionals to further address the need.

Scarice said enrollment in special education has increased from 13.4 percent of the student population to 14.6 percent.

Salaries and benefits account for more than 80 percent of the school’s annual budget and include a $2.8 million increase tied to contracts.

Total Equipment has the largest budget increase in terms of percentage, at 210.9 percent, going from nearly $250,000 in the current budget up to about $776,000. Purchased Services increased by 4.2 percent to a total of about $2.31 million, Property Services went up 6.3 percent to nearly $6.88 million and the area of Other Purchased Services went up 7.3 percent to a total of about $12.2 million, according to the budget presentation.

Scarice said the plan includes all funding needed to operate a school district of nearly 1,000 employees and 5,280 students projected for the next school year.

“In the midst of more than two years of disruption and challenge, the annual work of the Westport Public Schools and the Board of Education must persist,” Scarice said. “The challenges are obvious, but within and across those challenges are opportunities.”

Scarice said there is no question that the infusion of funds at the federal level have helped communities through the dark period of COVID. He said “Westport is no exception.”

He said the budget process began in the fall and has been “deliberate” and “transparent.” The district administrators submitted recommendations on Oct. 22. The central office team then met with each administrator over two days in early December and then with all principals and coordinators on Dec. 16.

With all of the requests from the district administrators, Scarice said the budget initially represented a 5.71 percent increase, however he brought that down by about $2.4 million before bringing his final recommendation to the Board of Education on Monday.

Despite the reduction, the proposed budget is still higher than what the Board of Finance had hoped. The school board said in December, they were told by members of the BOF that they hoped the budget would not exceed more than a 2.5 percent increase of the current budget.

Scarice said the 2022-23 budget proposal is the first to reflect the “pandemic effect,” while at the same time moving forward with other parts of the district’s agenda.

“Remarkably, during this time, the district has continued to incrementally advance work that will only add to the strength of an already renowned and decorated school system,” Scarice said.

“I look forward to deeper discussions towards developing a greater understanding of the budgetary needs of our district,” he added.

The school board will continue to review the budget during a day-long public workshop scheduled for Friday.

serenity.bishop@hearstmediact.com