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Thursday, April 06, 2017

Finance Board Restores $310,000 to School Budget

By James Lomuscio

One after the other and with no time limits, more than two dozen parents, PTA members, alumni and a few students came to the podium at Wednesday night’s Board of Finance meeting,

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Isabella Mariani, 6, a first grader at Saugatuck Elementary School, was among Westport students who showed up at the meeting to support restoration. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

There, they extolled the value of the Westport school system, the reason many said they moved to town, and they urged the finance board to restore $700,000 to next year’s operating budget.

The finance board listened intently but more than four and a half hours later at 1:08 a.m. today by a 5 to 2 vote gave back only $310,000 of the $1.674 million it had cut from the schools’ $115.35 proposed operating budget, which had been a 2.44 percent increase over the current year.

With the restoration and the addition of $480,000 from the school’s health reserve fund approved by the school board Monday night, the 2017-18 operating budget now stands at $113.65 million. It will go to the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) in early May for final approval and a possible vote for full restoration of the $700,000.

The restoration was long and labored despite the fact school officials and Board of Finance members have been working hand-in-hand for more than a month, trying to reach an accord in the wake of the state’s fiscal malaise. The finance board had originally lauded the schools’ $115,351,346 proposed budget, a $2.7 million, increase.

But that changed more than a month ago when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s plan requiring towns to pay 30 percent of teacher pensions was announced.

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Some of the crowd early in the meeting. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

If approved it would cost Westport next year an extra $5.9 million, $8 million when tallied with $2.1 million in state cuts. Even if Malloy’s proposal fails, which is expected because of bipartisan opposition, other state cuts are in the offing.

At the outset of Wednesday night’s meeting, Brian Stern, finance board chairman, said he was moved by the plethora of letters and emails he had received showing “how these programs do affect students’ lives.”

“And 99.7 percent of the letters state people moved to Westport for the schools,” Stern said in a 25-minute prelude to public discussion.

Despite his empathetic outpouring, Stern underscored, “We are the Board of Finance; we are not the Board of Ed.”

“Our goal is to maintain the financial well being in town,” he stressed.

Michael Gordon, school board chairman, and Elio Longo, school business administrator, made the restoration request, with Longo reading a letter from Schools Superintendent Colleen Palmer—absent because she is recovering from minor surgery—explaining how the board arrived at the $700,000 request.

“I want each of you to look at it as more than a number,” Gordon said, adding the restoration would affect students, teachers and principals.

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Elio Longo, school business administrator, explained the restoration request. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

“We moved here for the schools,” he added. “You know who said that? Nearly everyone.”

Stern reminded the packed audience that the Board of Finance under state statute does not decide line item cuts in a school budget, just an amount.

Programs cuts to accommodate the budget cuts are the purview of the school board.

That information seemed lost on several who spoke in favor of not cutting freshman sports at Staples High School or other specific programs.

Most, however, addressed the overall budget, touting the importance of the school system in terms Westport’s quality of life and its effect on the bottom line, real estate values.

As public comments came to a close, the Board of Finance approved a memorandum of understanding supporting the school board’s drawdown of the medical reserve from 9 to 5 percent to garner $480,000.

Then came the vote of the restoration. Suggestions were all over the map from $220,000 suggested by Vice Chairman Michael Rea to $600,000 recommended by John Hartwell and $400,000 offered by Jennifer Tooker.

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Board of Finance members discussed the restoration request for more than four and a half hours before voting at 1:08 a.m. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

After Rea’s and Tooker’s motions failed to get majority votes, James Westphal suggested $310,00,which passed by 5 to 2. Tooker and Hartwell voted against.

Prior to the vote, Rea said he wanted assurances from the school board and the town that they would look seriously at consolidating services to cut costs.

Gordon gave assurances, and First Selectman Jim Marpe reiterated comments he made during the public comments about consolidation efforts.

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Posted 04/06/17 at 01:21 AM  Permalink



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