By Linda Conner Lambeck

WESTPORT — School board efforts to rein in a proposed 5.33 percent increase in the district’s 2023-24 budget has produced a list of items that can subtract — or add — to the bottom line.

During a two-and-a-half-hour discussion, the Board of Education last week zeroed in on several items to scrutinize in the $136,406,718 budget proposal for the next fiscal year.

Budget busters or costs to cut?

  • A new job of school facilities project coordinator.
  • Who pays the $89,000 for intramural coaches — the school district or parents?
  • Switching to a bring-your-own-device model at the middle schools when it comes to technology.
  • Adding back an instructional coach cut from the high school.
  • Asking the town to create a budget reserve account in addition to the carry-over account that already exists. The carry-over account is for up to 1 percent of general school district funds not used in any given fiscal year.

The reserve account would be for things like tuition for some special education services collected from employees who live out of town but send their children to Westport’s schools. Over the past two years, the school district garnered almost $75,000 in that way and the money goes to the town not district.

Two other big unknowns expected to have an impact on the bottom line are transportation costs — bids for a new contract are not due until Jan. 26 — and health benefit costs. Some fear those costs could rise more than increase 7 percent.

Board Chairwoman Lee Goldstein said she and Vice Chairwoman Liz Heyer plan to take up health care with the Board of Finance. Even so, she said health care expenses will be higher next year than this year.

“We’re not saving money, it’s going to be more,” Goldstein said.

Goldstein the school board must decide if it wants to get the budget increase below 5 percent or is comfortable saying: “It’s 5.3 percent. We’re done.”

Rising enrollment tops other budget questions

Based on discussions of the proposed budget at two previous meetings, Supt. of Schools Thomas Scarice came to last week’s board meeting with responses to 15 questions posed by members. 

They had asked about everything from cost comparisons with other towns to how elementary school sizes influence the distribution of teachers in special areas, such as music.

Scarice said the story of the budget is summed up in one chart that shows an unexpected 12 percent growth in elementary school enrollment between 2019 and this year.

More students have required more teachers.

So while inflation in categories like utilities and supplies can be blamed for less than 1 percent of the $136,406,718 proposal, the bulk of the spending increase is tied to enrollment, Scarice said.

“Inflation is not our story. It’s a very small fraction of it. It really is the … explosion of enrollment here.,” Scarice said.

As for peer school districts, the board was cautioned against per pupil comparisons since the factors that go into the number can vary, district to district. 

More telling, administrators argued, is to compare things like how much Westport spends on out-of-district special education placements vs. similar towns like Darien or New Canaan.

In Westport, 2.2 percent of the entire budget is spent on out-of-district placements, compared to 3.2 percent in New Canaan and 6.3 percent in Darien.

As for enrollment, while Westport K-5 enrollment has gone up 12 percent since 2019, many peer districts have seen numbers remain flat or dipped.

“Young families have gravitated here,” Scarice said.

Board member Robert Harrington pointed out that the growth in the district’s elementary schools is unequal and causing an imbalance that needs to be addressed in a way that is likely to be uncomfortable for the community.

How crucial is proposed project coordinator for schools?

Regarding the proposed project coordinator, Scarice said the position would support the district’s director of facilities and security by providing management and oversight to a growing list of district maintenance activities and minor capital improvement projects.

The board got a comparison of what the project coordinator would do vs. the facilities staff. Scarice said the position could save the district from hiring project managers piecemeal.

Goldstein called the proposed job crucial.

Harrington said it was not clear to him what support there is from the town for the position.

“Clearly, you’re recommending doing this because you think it’s going to fill a gap and there’s a lot of maintenance and capital work. I think it’s a narrative to have with [the Board of Finance],” Harrington said.

Budgeting practices reviewed

The reserve budget account idea included talk of adding any school-related revenue to the existing carry-over account.

Heyer questioned if that was a good idea.

“There is a lot of sensitivity to the carry-over account. People think well of it, and it works well,” Heyer said, and altering it makes her nervous. She said she’d rather see any special education tuition revenue go to a reserve dedicated to supporting unexpected special education costs.

Goldstein wondered about the budget practice of deducting for staff turnover. Staff who leave are often replaced by teachers who are paid less. If the anticipated deduction isn’t made, turnover funds could go toward unexpected hires. There have been several over the past several years that the budget has had to absorb.

Combined or not, board Secretary Neil Phillips suggested any offset account be transparent.

“I think that’s the key here,” he said.

Sharing the pain

Harrington said he wants a discussion with the finance board about district pressure points so they can “share our pain.” The finance panel needs to see how structurally difficult some of these issues are, he said.

The idea of eliminating a literacy coach position at Staples was questioned by board member Dorie Hordon, particularly with the proposed addition of a facilities coordinator. The coach’s role is to support new teachers learn district programs, help with testing and small group instruction.

“They are all tradeoffs,” Scarice said. “All hard decisions. This is where we landed, trying to balance the needs across the whole system with the guiding principles that we put together.”

The idea of using student-supplied computers at home could save about $257,000. The devices, however, would have to be put in sync with school applications, district testing that requires devices would become more difficult and the district couldn’t control the sites that could be accessed on student computers.

On the bus contract, requests for proposals on a new pact are not due until Jan. 26.

“I’m very hopeful that we can find something there, but without knowing what the different proposals are it’s hard to know,” said Heyer.

Money saved could translate to longer bus rides or a change in school-day start times, it was added.

The school board has two weeks to vote on the 2023-24 budget. It is unlikely to occur at its meeting Monday, Jan. 23, because the agenda includes discussion of other major topics such as redistricting. The board’s Jan. 30 meeting is the only other scheduled session before the Board of Finance gets the budget proposal on Feb. 6.

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.