The Education Budget

Tomorrow, the Board of Education presents its proposed 2011-12 budget to the Board of Finance.  The request — approximately $98 million — represents a 2.36% increase over the current year.  Before approving it unanimously, the Board of Ed cut more than $400,000 from the Superintendent’s proposal.

The Board of Finance — and, later, the RTM — will examine various cost centers.  They’ll hone in here, ask questions there, and may suggest further cuts.  It’s a springtime ritual, one folks in Tunisia and Egypt and Libya would die for (quite literally).

Before all the hand-wringing and finger-pointing begins, here are some thoughts:

Westport is not at the top when compared to similar districts. In fact, since the economy tanked we’ve been a leader in minimizing year-to-year increases (only Weston is lower).  And of all the towns in our “district reference group,” we’ve got the lowest requested annual rate of increase.

More than 82% of the budget is driven by salaries and benefits. In fact, the entire 2.36% increase requested is applied to contractual salary increases owed to employees.  The Board of Ed is asking for nothing more.  Union contracts requiring approval beyond the Board of Ed were passed overwhelmingly by the Board of Finance and RTM — and led to greater contributions by employees toward health care costs.

Over the past 2 years, there’s been a $3.6 million budgetary shortfall in the area of contractual salaries. The result has been reductions in the music and gifted programs, staff cuts in elementary schools and libraries, deferred maintenance and more.  The Board of Ed anticipates 865 employees next year — 6 fewer than this year.

Inevitably, Person A will ask why we have “x” program.  Person B will explain its importance, and question why instead we have “y.”  Person C will know that both “x” and “y” are valuable, but not say anything because it is much easier to criticize than praise.

Inevitably too, someone will note that I am an employee of the Westport school system.  That is true.  I do several things, on a part-time basis.  I earn a few thousand dollars a year from the Board of Ed.  I get no benefits — certainly not retirement.  I pay 100% of my own health insurance.

Much has changed since Horace Staples donated a high school to Westport. But his vision for a top-rate education lives on throughout town.

But I am willing to pay my fair share of the education costs (and of the entire town budget, though that’s not the topic of this post).  I know the tremendous value our schools provide for kids today.  I appreciate what they did for me, back in the day.  I know how much more in taxes my sisters in Westchester County and New Jersey pay (and don’t get the one in Gov. Christie’s state started on what’s happening there).

I know how much more — proportionally, and in some cases actually — people in neighboring towns and cities pay, for school systems that don’t come close to ours.

The debate this spring should not be about the failures of America’s educational system generally, or a bad experience one person’s child had one year with one teacher.  It should be about whether we believe Westport schools — in a wide variety of ways and, working under a staggering set of demands and for a broad range of constituencies — are preparing our children to live in, work in, contribute to and help change a dizzyingly challenging world.

And, if we believe that, whether the Board of Ed budget is a worthwhile investment in that future.

15 responses to “The Education Budget

  1. The Dude Abides

    Interesting and thank you for the insight. I think many of us, myself included, might rant/rave about the cost of education without knowing the actual numbers. As I understand it, about 83,000 million bucks will go for the 865 employees and their benefits. The remaining 15 million will go for upkeep, materials and that sort of thing. Two points of inquiry and statement: (1) I think it is dangerous comparing school districts and their finances, whether it be New Jersey or New York or whatever. This tends to cause a snowball effect and nonsensical “Keeping up with the Joneses” type of mentality; (2) How exactly are these 865-$83,000,000 employees evaluated??? If you think I am being a wise-ass, I am not. I am curious. I am also a product of this school system in “the day” and realize its value but with a nationwide crisis at hand, I am curious as to budgetary issues.

    • Dude – I like your point about the Keeping up with the Joneses mentality. Although whether we like it or not, it is an important part of what makes our society what it is…

      • The Dude Abides

        Why? Is someone not going to buy a house here because the student per capita expenditure is less than say Norwalk? Some realtors are saying Brian McMahon is a better school than Staples.

  2. The problem is Dan that you offer no metrics. The issue is whether or not Westport schools are worth the tens of millions spent annually. Thus far, I have not seen one person on the BOE offer a set of metrics. They just cry for more money. BTW Dude the budget as presented is an “operating budget.” Major capital costs are ignored. The actual cost of the Westport public school system is much higher.

  3. The Dude Abides

    I was suspect for that high a % of a budget that goes to salaries/benefits is
    in trouble. I would be also interested in the number of students in
    the system????? I would love to see a breakdown of how much money
    per student is being spent??

    • If you can do some long division you can figure out the operating expenditures per student, but that number is a significant understatement of the total cost.

      • The estimated enrollment on October 1, 2011 is 5760, down from the actual October 1, 2010 enrollment of 5819. These data are in the proposed budget. Look at pages 13 and 14 and you will get some idea of one of the main drivers of the budget.

  4. The Dude Abides

    I don’t see the total number of students in the article?

  5. If Westport public schools “… are preparing our children to live in, work in, contribute to and help change a dizzyingly challenging world.” then performance standards should be global in nature and not local. How long before we can see those standards? After the BOE budget is rubber stamped?

  6. The Dude Abides

    I agree with your premise: the budget will be rubber-stamped. But along with my “Leftist” mindset, I am more concerned with the bottom third of the class and their future VICE that of the top 1/3. The math indicates just over $16,145 per student. Buy a house in Detroit for that.

    • That amount does not include all of the related costs; like schools buildings. As PJ argued in his most recent book; that survival of the fittest thing doesn’t work if we keep the unfit hanging around at the public trough.

  7. The Dude Abides

    Yeah well, they are the majority of kids around here whether or not the parents want to believe or not. Investment in trade schools might be a good agenda for Ears.

    • Now would be a good time for you to move to an undisclosed location. The trade school thing won’t fly just as the MJ legalization thing won’t fly. No one wants to tell Johnny that 4 years of college would be a waste of time and money, and the education establishments wants that money. Obama certainly does not have the stones to act as you suggest.

  8. The Dude Abides

    No, but reality may set in as the student loans come due and no dinero. No trabajo. Just watched Tiger Mama on Charlie. A dose of reality. Hell, I wish I had become a carpenter instead of a freaking attorney. Might know how to fix my sagging deck. You are right though, no stones. Pimples in the face of reelection. Sad.