By James Lomuscio
Westport’s Board of Finance voted unanimously tonight to trim the Board of Education’s 2019-20 proposed budget by $250,000, an amount finance board members called reasonable in the wake of the school system’s tumultuous year and the need to keep the mill rate flat.
BOE Chair Mark Mathias had asked for $118,500,464, an increase of 2 percent over the current year.
He had previously said that the driving forces behind the lower percentage compared to previous years were: the impact of operating the district with a new sixth through eighth model while Coleytown Middle School (CMS) is not occupied, plus a reduction in staff saving $846,847.
But finance board members felt that number still needed trimming, despite the challenges the school system has faced with the shutdown of CMS due to serious mold problems and the need to reconfigure grades.
The finance board’s cut comes on the same day that Schools Superintendent Colleen Palmer announced that she will retire Aug. 1 after just three years at the helm.
At the outset of the meeting, First Selectman Jim Marpe lavishly praised Palmer for her educational achievements and for holding annual ice cream socials to which town as well as BOE employees were invited.
“The times that we’re in, I think it’s a reasonable amount to do,” Brian Stern, finance board chairman said about the school system budget adjusted to $118,250,452.
“Once we get past this budget session it’s really critical that the (school) board get that strategy, that strategic vision,” he added. “You guys have to do it, and you have to do it quickly.”
Finance board member James Westphal said he could accept the $250,000 cut though he would have preferred more.
“In normal times, I would ask for more,” said Westphal. “I can live with $250,000 very easily .I think it is achievable, and I think more is achievable, but I want people to have more confidence in the schools.”
While the Board of Finance under state statute cannot make line item cuts on a proposed school budget, it can offer suggestions as to where the school board can look at fiscal belt tightening.
Finance board member Sheri Gordon suggested that the school system reevaluate its use of outside consultants.
She said that while a lot of consultants have been hired, she did not see the productivity. Elio Longo, the school system’s chief financial officer, said the district spends between $250,000 and $300,000 on consultants.
In addition to the approved operating budget, the finance board unanimously approved $140,000 in program expenses, $393,800 in aid to private and parochial schools, and $9.36 million in debt service for the schools, bringing the total education budget to $128,341,889.
Because of uncertainty, it does not yet include town teacher pension contributions to the state estimated at $607,762.
With the municipal budget approved Tuesday night, the finance board unanimously approved the total Town of Westport budget for next year at $210,752,563.
Town departments, as well as the school system that sustained cuts can return to the Board of Finance to seek restorations on Wednesday, April 3. The RTM will have the final say on restorations in May.