Board of Education approved a $147.3 million budget for 2024-25 at its Thursday meeting in Staples High School. / Photo by Linda Conner Lambeck

By Linda Conner Lambeck

WESTPORT — An attempt to add two elementary assistant principal positions to the 2024-25 education budget proposal failed Thursday on a three-three vote by the Board of Education.

The tie would have been broken in favor of the idea by the board’s new seventh member, Abby Gordon-Tolan — who said she supported adding the assistant principals — but for two reasons.

Named to the fill an open seat earlier in the evening, Gordon-Tolan has yet to be sworn in. And although she sat at the board table and participated in the discussion, the new member told board Chair Lee Goldstein prior to her appointment that she would abstain from voting on the budget because she did not attend all of the earlier meetings on the spending package.

“I felt it would be inappropriate for me to vote,” Gordon-Tolan said.

Board Vice Chair Dorie Hordon and members Robert Harrington and Jill Dillon voted to add the assistant principals.

Goldstein, board Secretary Neil Phillips and member Kevin Christie voted no.

The board ultimately voted 4-2 to adopt a $147,300,744 proposed budget, which will be forwarded for review by town boards before its final adoption this spring. Hordon and Harrington voted no. Hordon said afterward her dissent was because the assistant principal jobs were omitted.

The board’s request for the 2024-25 fiscal year is $11 million more than current spending — an 8.08 percent increase — but $1 million less than the $148,323,619 budget recommended by Supt. of Schools Thomas Scarice.

The reduction is largely a result of negotiations with Aetna, the district’s health insurance carrier, which revised its projected cost increase from 45 to 39 percent, according to Elio Longo, the district’s chief financial officer.

The ultimate cost is still uncertain as the town considers whether or not to change back to the state’s health insurance plan. That could save even more. 

Insurance costs comprise the lion’s share of the school board’s proposed budget increase.

As such, Scarice told the board at the outset of budget deliberations a month ago that he was not recommending about $1 million in additional staff positions, including the assistant principals.

Still, elementary school principals were invited to the board’s day-long budget session in early January to detail how a decision to scale back the number of assistant principals several years ago was a mistake.

Only Long Lots has two assistant principals. The other four elementary schools have one and a half positions.

Hordon called it a disservice to students to have removed the assistant principals in the first place. Now, with the district’s special education population increasing — a large part of an assistant principal’s responsibilities is to coordinate special education services — Hordon said it’s important to restore the jobs

Harrington agreed. “I am a strong supporter of correcting mistakes,” he said.

Goldstein said she appreciated the arguments in support of adding back the assistant principal jobs, but decided to stick with sending the superintendent’s recommended budget to the town.

“If we can get through with no cuts that is good,” she said.

Christie said he also decided to stick with the superintendent’s recommendation.

Phillips said the jobs’ omission from the budget said to him the administration decided the schools could manage another year without them. “Not to dismiss the importance of APs,” he added.

Phillips, however, said between uncertainties about health-care costs and the potential cost of keeping Long Lots school functional until a new one is built, now is not the time to add to the payroll.

Transportation budget cut stalls

By a 2-4 vote, the board also rejected a proposal from Harrington to trim the school district’s transportation budget by $240,000, the equivalent of two school buses.

Harrington and Hordon voted for the cut.

“I think we have to start somewhere,” Harrington said, calling it a limited and mild proposal.

The district this year is serviced by 39 large school buses and 17 special education vans from its contractor, First Student. It is expected the district will spend $7.4 million on transportation this year and close to $7.7 million in the 2024-25 fiscal year.

Although the board wants to cut transportation costs and gain efficiencies, Goldstein called Harrington’s proposal a little too random.

Christie said now is a great time to map a plan for the following year’s budget. A committee devoted to transportation was suggested.

Dillon said she would support changes in transportation spending made in concert with a change in school start times.

Freelance writer Linda Conner Lambeck, a reporter for more than four decades at the Connecticut Post and other Hearst publications, is a member of the Education Writers Association.