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Talking About Taxes

Two days ago, Staples students Allison Manning and Susan Greenberg asked principal John Dodig if he would talk about the effects of budget cuts.

Today, he did.

The prinicipal — and his boss, schools superintendent Elliott Landon — gave presentations in the Staples library to 3 lunchtime groups.  All were standing room only.

The educators provided their perspectives on the budget process.  They corrected misinformation — explaining, for example, that much-publicized cuts to courses like “Collaborative” (English/social studies) and robotics were made earlier this year, based on demands for a 2% budget increase.

Dr. Elliott Landon, Westport schools superintendent, talks with Staples students Farrel Levenson and Suzanne Kleine about budget cuts.

Landon described first selectman Gordon Joseloff’s decision to offer early retirement to all town employees.  That vote, he said, belied the claim that Westport’s pension fund is underfunded — a key factor driving demands to decrease the education budget even further.

Now, with the RTM considering further cuts — perhaps $1 million, beyond the $1.4 million already eliminated — Landon revealed what might be on the chopping block.

Athletes may have to pay to play sports — including equipment and transportation.  Students involved in extracurricular activities like Inklings could pick up the newspaper’s advisor stipend themselves.

At the elementary school level, band and Spanish may go.  “We live in a global economy,” Landon said.  “My personal belief is that the ability hear, comprehend, read, write and speak Spanish is vital to our national interest.”

Students asked pointed questions, on topics ranging from administrative salaries to why classrooms were 80 degrees.  “I know,” Landon said. “Specialists are looking at the heating system.  It doesn’t work the way it was designed to.”

Some Westporters, Landon said, “don’t see the correlation between the fiscal well-being of the community, the need to maintain property values, and the quality of our education.

Staples principal John Dodig (left) and Westport schools superintendent Elliott Landon address students.

“We have  excellent fire and police departments,” the superintendent said.  “But people don’t move to Westport for the fire and police departments.  They come here for our schools.

“Business Week and Connecticut Magazine understand the quality of our schools,” he continued.  “If you’re a very bright student, there are wonderful programs for you.  If you’re a struggling learner, there are extraordinary resources.  We help every student reach their potential, whatever their level.  Our performing arts are tremendous.

“We do it all — and we do it with the 4th lowest tax rate in the state of Connecticut.

“We are on the cusp of making significant changes,” Landon concluded.  “Cuts of the magnitude being talked about will alter this school system for years to come.”

Dodig asked questions of the students, making sure they understood the complexities of the budget process.

And, referring to next Tuesday’s crucial vote, the principal said:  “It’s important that RTM members hear from the public.  Talk about this with your parents.  Whatever their feelings — whether they think the budget proposals are good or bad — make sure they let their feelings be known to the RTM.”

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