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Thursday, March 16, 2017

Finance Board Cuts School Budget $1.7 Million

By James Lomuscio

Fiscal realities trumped pressure from school officials and parents as the Board of Finance tonight voted 5 to 2 to cut $1.7 million from the $115,351,346 proposed school budget for 2017-18.

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School Board Chair Michael Gordon: “Imagine the headline: ‘Board of Finance Cuts $1.7 Million From Westport School Budget.’” (CLICK TO ENLARGE) WN photo from Westport Town Television

With that cut and the unanimous official approval of Wednesday night’s provisional $78 million municipal budget, the total town and school budget, including aid to private and parochial schools and debt service, is $203,514,189 for next year.

Following a finance board directive to cut $1.7 million, Schools Superintendent Colleen Palmer and Board of Education members tonight revisited their budget, recommending only $977,000 in cuts.

She and Michael Gordon, school board chairman, as well as more than a dozen parents who spoke, argued that cutting more would have a negative impact on students and the reason people move to Westport.

“A great school district needs to improve always,” Gordon said. “It’s more important that we don’t lose that focus in difficult times.”

Citing how Westport schools attract newcomers, Gordon said: “We all know people come to look for houses here every weekend and if they are like me, they read the local goings on to get to know the community.

“Imagine the headline: ‘Board of Finance Cuts $1.7 Million From Westport School Budget.’ You tell me who will move here this weekend after reading that tomorrow. And that’s just this weekend.”

The finance board had originally lauded the schools’ $115,351,346 proposed budget, a 2.44 percent, or $2.7 million, increase.

But that changed when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s plan requiring towns to pay 30 percent of teacher pensions was announced last month. It would cost Westport next year an extra $5.9 million, $8 million when tallied with $2.1 million in state cuts.

Among the cuts Palmer made to reach $977,000 were: deferring the hiring of a director of secondary education; cutting teacher support at both middle schools; reductions of a special education teacher at Staples High Schools and a Staples school psychologist; facilities and maintenance cuts; deferring furniture purchases and taking $100,000 out of the schools’ cafeteria account.

Gordon, the school board chairman, said any more cuts would impose hardships, “and teachers will have less time to focus on teaching.” He also questioned whether Malloy’s proposal on teacher pensions would pan out, saying he heard legislators say “it’s dead on arrival.”

While saying they were sympathetic, the majority of the Board of Finance said the state’s fiscal malaise was forcing the shared pain of different departments throughout Westport to make financial adjustments.

On Wednesday night First Selectman Jim Marpe presented a new $78 million municipal budget that not only met but exceeded the finance board’s recommendation for cuts.

Michael Rea, finance board vice chairman, said that in his 18 years serving on the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) and the Board of Finance, he only voted once against a school budget. Tonight became the second time as he argued for the $1.7 million cut.

“It’s not easy; it’s tough,” Rea said. “But, I think the superintendent and the Board of Education can do better.”

Finance board member James Westphal pointed out that over the past five years the school budget increased 19 percent while inflation remained at 7 percent.

“We are putting an enormous burden on people who don’t have children in the schools,” he said.

Finance board member Jennifer Tooker, a former school board member, made a motion seconded by Lee Caney to reduce the cut to $1.3 million. It failed by a 4 to 3 vote with John Hartwell joining them in voting for that reduction.

Rea argued that lowering the cut would only increase the burden on taxpayers when the state budget in early September is approved and an expected town tax increase becomes reality.

The $1.7 million cut passed 5 to 2 with Tooker and Caney dissenting.

Educators will have an opportunity to return to the Board of Finance on Wednesday, April 5 to seek full or partial restoration of the deleted funds. If the finance board does not agree, they can seek restoration from the RTM when it considers the budget in May.

This story has been corrected to show that the first vote to cut $1.3 million was 4-3, not 5-2.

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Posted 03/16/17 at 11:05 PM



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