Tough Economy Brings Budget Struggle

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Teacher salaries make up the largest part of the education budget and brings cutting them and programs to the heart of the debate. | Graphic by Ross Gordon '11

As the existing education budget for Westport Public Schools represents 63.7 percent of the entire town budget for the fiscal year 2010-2011, or nearly $111 million, its revision concerns many organizations and individuals supported by the school system. In addition, continuing unrest in the general economy has lead to various calls for budget cuts for the upcoming school year.

During a Board of Education (BOE) meeting on Jan. 4, Superintendent Elliott Landon proposed an education budget for the 2011-2012 school year that calls for a 2.79 percent (or $2.68 million) increase over the existing budget. If the BOE passes this budget, it will then be forwarded to the Board of Finance (BOF). In the event of any further disagreement over the budget, the BOE and BOF will jointly negotiate the issue.

Still, rumors of a “zero percent budget increase” for the upcoming school year have spread around the Westport community. The effects of such a budget, according to Principal John Dodig, would be catastrophic.

“A zero percent increase would essentially mean reducing the budget by three to three and a half million dollars to accommodate the scheduled contractual increase in teacher salaries,” Dodig said. “In that scenario, the only viable options are cutting faculty, cutting programs, or raising class sizes. If class enrollments are raised, less attention would be paid to the individual student, which would jeopardize our mission to be an excellent institute of learning.”

However, BOE Chairman Donald O’Day reaffirms that the “zero percent increase” is only a rumor, and an unlikely one at that.

“Not one elected official has stated publicly that the schools should have a ‘zero percent increase,’ but it has been consistently suggested that the increase be kept as low as possible.” O’Day said.

Dodig agreed, and said that Landon must satisfy the taxpayers of Westport and address the requirements of the District’s schools.

“The Superintendent put together a budget that he believes will meet the needs of the school in a very frugal way,” Dodig said.

Teachers’ salaries and health benefits for the upcoming school year were established by negotiations between the BOE and the Westport Education Association (WEA), the teachers’ union for the Westport District, and will not be affected by budget cuts.

However, academic courses could potentially be dropped, butSocial Studies 6-12 Coordinator James D’Amico views this as unlikely.

“Budget constraints give us less flexibility in choosing to run a course if it has low enrollment. But since 2005, when I began working as department chair, no social studies course has been eliminated due to budgetary reasons,” D’Amico said.

U.S. History Honors/ English II Honors Collaborative, also known as “Collab” by students, has been targeted for elimination in the past. Two years ago, the BOE and Landon restored it after student and parent protest against Collab’s cancellation, which included a march on Town Hall.

However, according to Michael Fulton, who co-teaches Collab, there has been no hint towards “the demise of Collab” from the BOE or any other source. D’Amico said he supported the continuation of courses, on the grounds that they promote a positive learning environment for students and further adapt the curriculum to be more relevant to students.

“When you look at a class like Collab, it’s expensive to keep it running… but it’s an ideal course model, considering the benefits of co-teaching and group projects,” D’Amico said.

Additionally, Dodig believes that the foundations of a successful school system are based upon adequate funding for a wide-ranging curriculum and course offerings.

“The single most important draw to the Town of Westport is the school system, where creative thinking and problem solving are encouraged,” Dodig said. “This is a standard we wish to promote, as it should be the model for schools across the nation. The question is why would you want to reduce our ability to continue working towards that goal?”

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