According to First Selectwoman Jen Tooker, “there is a lot going on” in Westport, but she and her administration are committed to investing in key priorities without adding to the town’s headcount.
Board of Education Chair Lee Goldstein said that most of the Board of Education’s increase is working to keep “current programming—it’s just what we’re doing.”
She also said that while the district as a whole has seen some declining enrollment over the past 10 years, the last three have seen an increase in students particularly at the elementary school level.
“I believe yet again for the fourth year in a row, we’re underestimating the number of students, and I’m worried about it,” she said to the Board of Finance.
Proposed Budget by the Numbers
The total proposed operating budget for the town is $233.5 million, a 4.39% increase over the current fiscal year, or a $9.82 million increase.
About 63% of the budget goes toward funding the school district, which amounts to about $136.3 million.
The town side is about 34% of the budget, or $81.9 million and about 3% of the budget is classified as “other,” and includes funding for areas like the transit district and the library.
The Board of Education is recommending a $136.3 million budget, which is an increase of $6.8 million or 5.24% from last year.
The Board of Finance held a public hearing on the town side of the budget and approved it with a 5-1 vote. The only changes the board made were to the “other” section, where it deducted funding from the transit district for its microtransit program. The rest of the town side remained intact. The school side will be up for a vote and public hearing soon.
Highlights from the Proposed Budget
Tooker gave the board updates on some of her administration’s priorities from last year including, working on pedestrian and traffic safety, providing mental health support and resources through the Westport Together initiatives, enhancing the downtown area, and working on flood mitigation efforts.
“As we know priorities shift, priorities change…[and] they just grow in number,” Tooker said.
Her proposed budget includes items that are:
- Supporting the work of the Long Lots Elementary School construction project, which recently formed a building committee
- Making upgrades to the downtown area
- Working on flood mitigation and stream management projects
- Looking for opportunities to grow affordable housing
- Promoting and supporting local businesses
On the Board of Education, Superintendent Tom Scarice said that this program expands their Effective School Solution special education program down to the middle level (from the high school).
“We did bend the cost curve on (special education) through some very special programming,” he said. He added that the programs provide “some really good cost avoidance,” because the district saves money by not sending students out of district, but it’s also added “some really good programming for kids,” by allowing them to stay in their district.
The budget also aims to preserve mental health positions and supports, as much student course selection as possible, and implement some parts of the strategic plan.
Tooker cited a variety of factors including inflation, increased health insurance costs, a higher borrowing rate, and a tight labor market as the main reasons for the budget increase since her proposal did not request an increase in headcount.
“We are doing a lot of work with the same amount of people,” she said.
Goldstein said that uncertain enrollment trends could continue to cause some budget challenges.
“Every single grade had more students to start this year than ended the year,” she said.
Goldstein said that they’ve made some programing changes to try and find some cost savings.
“We’ve cut teachers at the high school—for the first time we’re not guaranteeing that students get their first choice classes,” she said. “Those are real cuts.”
Transportation costs are also a main driver of the school’s budget, Goldstein said, which caused the district to lose “seven bus routes this year with serious consequences” including kids being on buses longer and delays both at pickup and drop off.
Goldstein said that this is a very lean budget already.
“We’ll make whatever cuts we need to, but they’ll be to staff,” she said.
As mentioned, the Board of Finance already held a public hearing on the town side and approved it. The public hearing and vote on the school side budget was postponed with a new date coming soon.
After the Board of Finance signs off on the budget, it goes to the legislative body, the Representative Town Meeting for final approval.