Down to the Wire

Down to the Wire

Despite the fact that next year’s town budget will not be adopted until the first Tuesday in May, several figures in town politics have expressed concern that next year’s budget for the Westport Public Schools will increase by 0%.

“I certainly think that the Board of Finance and the RTM have indicated that that’s their initial direction to us,” said Board of Education chair Donald O’ Day.

However, Board of Finance (BOF) member Helen Garten said that “at this point it is hard to predict where the budget will come out,” although she went on to say that she personally believes that “it would be prudent for both the town and the schools to aim for a flat budget,” given the current economic recession and the possible increase of property taxes in the coming economic year.

O’Day and Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon both felt that a 0% budget increase was probable.

“I attended a meeting of the BOF about three weeks ago and I heard two expressions,” Landon said.  “Some members were talking about a 0% budget increase and one even suggested a negative-less than zero-increase.”

Both felt that this budget would be tricky to balance, as a 0% budget increase does not simply mean the previous year’s budget can be reused.  O’Day explained that due to contractual salary obligations, a 0% budget increase really means cutting expenses somewhere.

“Every year, salaries will go up,” O’Day said.

If these cuts have to be made, Landon believes that some teachers will most likely have to be downsized.

“80% of our budget is dedicated to employee costs, as we are an employee business, not a manufacturing business,” Landon said.  “There are only a few places where we can cut, and that’s in people.”

Landon expressed concerns that letting teachers go will “change the nature of education in Westport for the negative.”  Furthermore, he said that a 0% budget increase makes it impossible to create a budget that “provides our students with the type of education that allows them to be successful.”

Kathy Sharp, president of the WEA (Teacher’s Union) also feels that a 0% budget increase would have negative effects on the state of education in Westport, largely because of the impact it could have on class sizes.

“The possibility of a 0% budget increase is very worrisome to the WEA and to our teachers,” Sharp said.

According to Sharp, the Westport Schools district experienced higher enrollment rates than expected for the 2010-11 school year.

“Some of our elementary classes have 25 students already; some classes at the high school have close to 30 students,” Sharp said.

Some teachers feel that these large class sizes can lead to students getting less out of their academic classes.  Though English teacher Anne Fernandez has experienced a gradual increase in class sizes rather than a spike in the number of students, she still feels the effects of larger class sizes.

“This year I’m conferencing with more students than I have in the past and I’m still not seeing all the students I’d like,” Fernandez said.  “If nothing else, the fact that we can’t conference with as many students on each of their papers is a very direct consequence of larger class sizes.”

English teacher Julia McNamee has also noticed the detrimental effects of larger class sizes.

“My Advanced Placement and Honors classes have 28, 29 kids,” McNamee said.  “What that means is the discussions can’t be anything close to what they should be.  When you have numbers that high, you can’t possibly do what you know in your heart you should be doing.”

For McNamee, large class sizes are something that parents of students should be concerned about.

“I am really surprised that parents are not clamoring about the sizes we already have,” McNamee said.

Sharp feels that cutting teachers, a possible consequence of a 0% budget increase, will exacerbate this problem.

“I would hope that a reduction in teaching positions is not being considered, especially after the larger than expected rise in enrollment this year,” Sharp said.

However, this is not the only way Sharp feels a 0% budget could negatively impact the school system.

“With a 0% budget increase, programs that make our school exemplary would be at risk,” Sharp said.  “The top quality education we work so hard to provide to our students in Westport would suffer under a 0% budget.”

Garten, however, does not share think such a budget will have these effects.

“My hope is that, in this budget, we can finally begin to move toward sharing more functions between town and schools,” Garten said  “That’s the best way to free up resources so that teachers and administrators can concentrate on what they do best, providing an extraordinary educational experience for students.”

According to Garten, the town’s personnel costs must be addressed next year.

“Education is 63.3% of total expenditures.  That’s not new, and it makes sense.  But what’s the next largest category?  It’s “miscellaneous, which means pensions and medical,” Garten said.  “That is new, and it is something we will have to address.”

Gartnen also noted that maintenance of town property should be receiving more funds next year.

The BOF will approve a recommended budget by April 15, which will be submitted to the Representative Town Meeting (RTM), which will adopt a budget by the first Tuesday in May.