Wednesday, May 07, 2014
By James Lomuscio
UPDATE (fixes Weber inflation quote) After almost two-and-a-half hours of exhaustive debate and, at times, unbridled emotion, Westport’s Representative Town Meeting (RTM) tonight approved the Board of Education’s $109.2 million operating budget for 2014-15—a total of $121.65 million including the school system’s debt service and aid to private and parochial schools—by a vote of 32 to 2 with 1 abstention.
Following that vote, the RTM voted 34 to 0 with 1 abstention to approve the overall 2014-15 town operating budget of $198,249,184, including $76.59 million budget approved by the legislative body Monday night.
The school board’s operating budget, which had unanimous support from the RTM’s Education and Finance committees, had at first seemed a slam dunk until freshman RTM member Rick J. Weber, District 9, proposed a $200,000 cut. Weber argued that the 4.8 percent increase was part of a pattern of school budget requests that had a compounded annual growth rate of 4.19 percent over the past 11 years.
“We need to slow down the rate of school growth of our budget, and I would like to see it begin next year with a 3 (percent) instead of a 4,” Weber said.
Schools Superintendent Elliott Landon countered that school board’s budget, $1.8 million less than what he had proposed, had already been cut to the bone. Elaine Whitney, school board chairwoman, had pointed out that 82 percent of the budget and the bulk of the increase was due to salary and benefits contractual obligations.
“So what’s left?” asked Landon. “There’s no way I’m going to recommend to the board to cut teachers.
“If you cut $200,000, I will recommend that we cut our bus monitors,” he added. “When we have to make cuts, you have to make hard choices.”
That suggestion generated a wellspring of emotion from senior RTM member Steve Rubin who became choked up recalling Holly Finley, a 6-year-old run over and killed by a bus while exiting it in December 1991. Her death on Evergreen Avenue led to establishing the bus monitor program.
“It is absurd, especially at the risk of the lives of our children,” Rubin said of Landon’s suggestion. He recalled that he and former First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, then an RTM member, volunteered as bus monitors when the program began and not enough paid personnel could be found.
RTM member John Suggs also became emotional, arguing that the RTM under state law cannot do line item cuts, and that was what Landon had in effect done with the threat of cutting monitors. He also said that Weber’s concern about school budgets outpacing inflation was legitimate and worthy of future examination.
“But what we got is institutionalized bullying,” he said of Landon. “For every bus monitor watching this, I apologize for our superintendent of schools.”
RTM member Don Bergmann, who had previously asked the Board of Finance to cut $200,000 from the school budget, agreed with Weber “that we’re going to have to get a handle” on school budgets. He said that if the Board of Education reduced its per pupil expenditure of more than $18,000 by $1,000, it would generate more than $5 million in savings.
RTM member Jack Klinge, who opposed the cut, suggested that the school board each year at budget time “do a three to five-year education budget with appropriate assumptions,” so the town would have a better understanding of what to expect.
The RTM voted 28 to 7 against approval of Weber’s proposed $200,000 cut.
With final approval of the budget, the next step is for the Board of Finance on May 21 to set the new tax mill rate. Tax notices will then go out to residents with the new rate effective July 1.
Posted 05/07/14 at 03:47 AM
I congratulate freshman member Rick Weber for his spirited effort to reduce the BOE operating budget by .0018% (that’s less than 1%!).
As for Dr. Landon’s claim that the BOE had already cut $1.8 million from his original budget, think of it as a purposefully inflated budget that the BOE could comfortably cut.
As for the bus monitors - MANY of them do NOT do the check that was started to prevent another death like Holly Finely. And many of them are not very helpful. My daughter has had many, and only one was even nice. Maybe just bad luck, but I can tell you they don’t check under the bus like they used to.