Board of Education budget cuts prompts community discussion in town meeting

Board of Education budget cuts prompts community discussion in town meeting

By: Francesca Truitt ’17 

The Westport Board of Education (BoE) must reduce its budget by $1.7 million to $125,120,532.50 next year, as requested by the Westport Board of Finance (BoF). Last Thursday, March 16, the BoF held a public hearing to discuss Superintendent Dr. Colleen Palmer’s proposed cuts that totaled $968,079, almost $700,000 short of the BoF’s initial request. Ultimately, the BoF decided to uphold the $1.7 million budget cut request, asking the BoE to find more areas where they can reduce the budget.

These budget cuts come as the result of an estimated $8 million bill demanded by the state, because of fiscal issues in the state government that the towns must contribute to solving. “It is sad that the burdens of the failures in Hartford are being placed on successful towns like Westport,” BoF member Brian Stern said.

Before the town meeting, Palmer released her proposed cuts that are “a tremendous reduction in workforce, elimination of supplies, materials, equipment,” she said. “At this point we have presented as much as we feel without making deeper cuts that would significantly negatively impact our budget.”

These cuts include eliminating workers like special education teachers and school psychologists, and reducing some secretaries to 11-month worker. Furthermore, the cuts include reducing materials like library chairs, tables and treadmills among other resources deemed unnecessary.

However, even though the cuts fall short of the BoF’s original budget reduction request of $1.7 million, some parents worry that their children’s quality of education will be diminished if any more cuts are made.

Jill Dillon, co-president at Kings Highway Elementary School and mother of two daughters in the elementary school system, wants to preserve the quality of education in the public schools. “Please contemplate keeping the cuts to the education system as low as you possibly can,” she asked the BoF. Dylan suggested the BoF follow Palmer’s proposals and cut less from the budget than was originally intended. “As a taxpayer, I’m happier to kick in more money for my town amenities than have it cut from my kids,” she said.

Students have even started to join the discussion. Max Kaplan ’17 resents that the state’s monetary issues fall onto towns like Westport, and worries about how feasible budget changes are.

“I think that the budget cut isn’t unreasonable because the only other viable option currently is to raise property taxes in town even higher than they currently are,” Kaplan said. “It’s unfortunate that the state’s issues are going to start affecting the schools in a significant way.”

The $1.7 million budget reduction amounts to 21 percent of the burden from this bill, but the general tax base will bear 55 percent of the burden, which has provoked some opposition from taxpayers.

Phil Perry, a resident of Westport since 1997, is especially concerned about the bill’s effect on the town’s taxes, as the real estate taxes have almost tripled since he moved here. Although some speakers pleaded the BoF to avoid putting cuts on the town’s education system, Perry trusts the committee’s judgement. “I have a lot of respect for the school system, I have two children at Staples High School, but where do you draw the line?” Perry asked. “It’s painful, it’s terrible, but raising the taxes is not the way to go. Please continue to do what you feel is right.”

Although the cuts have sparked much debate, the discussion is open to public involvement through town meetings conducted every few weeks. “This is a problem that came to us by the state, but what I think we’re all doing now is what Westport does best,” Jenn Tooker, BoF member, said. “We come together and respond as a community. We have some of the smartest, most engaged, most committed volunteers in this town and we come together as a community to figure out a solution to this.”