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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.

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