BOE To Vote On Landon’s Budget Feb. 1

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Elliot Landon and other board members listen during a recent BOE meeting. |Eric Essagof '12

Elliot Landon and other board members listen during a recent BOE meeting. |Jordan Shenhar '13

Kate McNee ’11
Copy Editor

As the school year progresses and the effects of last year’s controversial budget cuts continue to be felt, the Board of Education (BOE) is again beginning the process of preparing a budget for the next school year.

On Jan. 5, Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon proposed a budget of $97.3 million at the BOE’s regular meeting, on which he and a small staff had been working since October. This is a 2.9 percent increase from this year’s budget of $94.6 million. During this meeting, Landon discussed how he did not fund any cuts that were made last year, including an elimination of paraprofessionals, among other things. Landon also discussed his proposed budget with the BOE and Board of Finance (BOF) at a meeting at the Westport Public Library on Jan. 8. A formal vote by the BOE on his school budget is scheduled for Feb. 1. It may be potentially as late as Feb. 8 if additional public meetings are required.

A long process, which involves much interaction between the BOF and BOE, will result in an official budget. The BOE will create its own budget request and formally present it to the BOF at a March 3 meeting. After discussing this budget request, the BOF’s first vote on it will be held on March 23. The BOE then has an opportunity to ask for restoration of any amounts by which the education budget was reduced by the BOF. On April 7, the BOF will vote on any of the BOE’s restoration requests, and make its final school budget recommendation to the Representative Town Meeting (RTM). The RTM then approves the final education budget on May 4, the last step.

Before Landon proposed his budget on Jan. 5, members of the BOE, BOF, and the RTM Education and Finance chairpersons met informally in Dec. 2009.

“We got an initial understanding of the perspectives of these organizations as we enter the budget process,” BOE member Jim Marpe said. One argument that was voiced was keeping the budget flat, or not having an increase. Board of Finance member Helen A. Garten expressed that she would prefer this, “I think the message some of us conveyed to the BOE in December, that it would be prudent to target a zero percent budget increase, still holds true,” Garten said.

Last year, this process was difficult and extremely controversial due to the damaged economy. A student–run rally was held at the Westport Town protesting many of the reductions that were being considered. The final 2009–10 BOE budget that was approved by the BOF and RTM went up a total of only 0.5 percent from the previous year, or $500,000, even though contracted salary increases alone totaled more than $3,000,000. The BOE had to reduce expenses by $2,500,000, which included cutting in many easily reduced areas, such as purchasing activities, making some structural changes (such as eliminating a number of paraprofessionals), in order to save, and holding off on some maintenance projects. With the tough economy only mildly improving into 2010, the 2010–2011 BOE budget process will again be challenging.

“One underlying concern [that Garten expressed] is that many Westport homeowners feel strained by their current property taxes [even though they are still paying them] since their incomes may have declined quite a bit,” Marpe said.

Essentially, the BOE and BOF have to find a way to fund the best school system that Westport can afford with a declined revenue source without needing to increase property taxes and put further strain on homeowners.

One area where the BOE has looked to save money is with unions. The BOE has just completed a negotiation of a new contract with the Westport Education Assocation, the teacher’s union, which, according to Garten “should have a positive impact on the budget.”

As salaries and related benefits make up 80 percent of the budget, the BOE is considering addressing this area.

“Nevertheless, we recognize that our great education is delivered by our outstanding teachers and building administrators with support of our other extraordinary employees. We need to maintain an environment that attracts and motivates the very best teachers and support staff,” Garten said.