Wednesday, May 03, 2017
By James Lomuscio
UPDATE After four-and-a-half hours of discussions, debates and comments from parents, PTA members, students, and Board of Finance members, Westport’s Representative Town Meeting (RTM) voted narrowly early today to restore $390,000 to the 2017-18 school operating budget.
The 12:10 a.m. vote — coming after two-thirds of the exhausted members backed a motion to cut off debate — was 26 to 7.
Voting no were: Catherine Calise, Sylina Levy, Kristan Hamlin, Seth Braunstein, Peter Gold, Dee Chapman, and Carla Rea. The 26 yes votes were 2 more than the 70 percent of those present needed to restore what the Board of Finance had rejected at its April 5 meeting.
At that session, finance members restored $310,000 of the $700,000 requested by the Board of Education. (See WestportNow April 6, 2017)
With the latest restoration, the education operating budget is set at $114,377,346, a 1.57 percent increase over the current year but still $494,000 short of the requested budget.
Following that vote, the RTM unanimously approved a total education budget of $125 million, including debt service, aid to private and parochial schools and programming expenses.
What followed was a unanimous vote on the total town budget, including the $78.39 million municipal budget approved Monday night, of $204,240,189.
The restoration effort built as the RTM meeting approached. According to parent Robert Harrington, who spoke along with his son at the meeting, in one month 1,700 online signatures and more than 500 written signatures were gathered from parents, teacher and students.
In all, more than two dozen members of the public stepped to the RTM podium, the majority of them urging the $390,000 restoration.
Two Board of Finance members — Michael Rea and James Westphal — were among those urging a no vote.
Some speakers said the Board of Finance cut if not restored would result in the loss of music programs and freshman sports at Staples High School.
“It’s not just dollars you’re talking about; it’s about the kids,” said Philip Ross, who feared the loss of freshman football, which he said was important to his son’s time at Staples.
Others said it the cut would lead to an erosion of real estate values since the town’s top-tier school system was a major draw for people to move to Westport. A vote to reject restoration, they said, would send the wrong message about how much Westport values its school system.
RTM Moderator Eileen Flug gave students the first opportunity to speak.
Nakul Sethi, 7, a Long Lots Elementary School first grader, could not be seen by members because he was hidden behind the podium, but his voice was loud and clear.
“Please restore the budget so I can have a good education in Westport,” he said. Nakul and his family arrived in Westport this year from Singapore.
His sister, Anooshka, 14, an eighth grader at Bedford Middle, also spoke, saying it’s important to restore the budget in support of music and sports. She plays the cello and wants to get involved with sports teams at school.
“it’s so important for overall self development,” she said.
“The reason we moved to this town was because of the schools,” said Arthur Shapiro, a Staples sophomore, adding that voting against the restoration “will tarnish the perception of our schools.”
In one case even the Board of Finance’s hard line of keeping taxes low via a level mill rate did not seem to matter.
“I would rather see your increase our taxes,” said parent Tricia Freeman.
She added that at the same time the town could work to find tax relief for senior citizens on fixed incomes.
It was the rare few who spoke against the restoration, noting that $390,000 was approximately one-third of 1 percent of the operating budget — and that fiscal conservatism was critical at a time of economic uncertainty at the state level.
“There are a number of citizens in our town who are concerned,” longtime Westporter Don Bergmann, a former RTM member, said referring to seniors who comprise more than 20 percent of the town’s population.
Bergmann also took aim at claims of the negative effect of not restoring the finance board’s cut.
“Cutting $390,000 will make no difference to the education in Westport,” he said.
When it came time for members of the RTM to debate the issue, some said the restoration of $390,000 would be symbolic in that the town placed a high value on its schools.
A number of RTM members also lauded Schools Superintendent Colleen Palmer for her first budget presentation and working well with the finance board to make judicious cuts that did not have a negative impact on programs and what happens in the classroom.
The next step in the budget process is the setting of the mill rate by the Board of Finance later this month.
In an email to parents Wednesday night, Palmer said: “Last evening the RTM voted 26-7 to restore $390k to the education budget as requested by the Board of Education.
“This action by the RTM, after previous efforts of the BoF to restore some funding, left $494k to be reduced from the original 2.44% BoE adopted budget, a much smaller amount than the original BoF target of $1.7M.
“I expect that the Board of Education will discuss specific strategies to mitigate the reduction of $494k at its next meeting on Monday, May 8, at 7:30 p.m.”
This story has been updated to include Palmer’s email comments.
Posted 05/03/17 at 12:25 AM Permalink