Board Of Finance: “Education Budget Can Be Slowed Without Pain And Suffering”

Six of the 7 Board of Finance have written an open letter to Westporters. They say:

Westport has worked hard to prudently manage its finances and tax base. All branches of our town government, many elected officials and volunteers, have worked collaboratively, on behalf of all residents, to ensure we have a high quality of life at a cost all residents and businesses can afford.  Sadly, maintaining this balance will be more difficult in the future.

Today we are faced with grim economic news from the State of Connecticut. This is not a one-off problem and it will continue for years to come. Because of our state government’s inability to manage their budget and control spending, resulting in a projected deficit of over $1.5 billion next year alone, Westport finds itself in a difficult position. Instead of tackling a state government that has grown too large and too expensive for the residents, the state is largely trying to solve its budget problems by shifting costs to towns.

First, the state is decreasing or totally eliminating payments it has made to Westport for either education or other services, which equals $3 million to $4 million in 2018 alone. We assume this revenue from the state, which directly supplemented our operating budgets, is permanently gone.

Second, the state is discussing transferring ongoing costs from the state budget to the town budget, in the form of teacher pension costs. If it does not come in the form of teacher pension costs, we still believe transferred costs will come to us in another form.

The total impact in 2018 will be in the $8 million range (based on the proposals currently on the table). Rather than pass these costs directly on to Westport taxpayers with a big tax increase, approximately $800 per household, the Board of Finance asked our town to come together as a community to find ways to slow the growth of operational costs.

The Police, Fire Department, EMS, Public Works, Parks and Rec, Library and Town Hall staff did what they could, and reduced their initial operating budget submissions by 1.5%. We also asked the Board of Education to trim its submission by 1.5% or $1.7 million. This actually results in an increase of 1%, or $1 million over the prior year education budget.

Now it is time for the Board of Education to join with the Westport community to do its part, as they have before. This is not the time for pitting parents against the rest of the community. We must all do what we can to try to provide the best services to everyone in Westport at the most reasonable cost.

As we have learned in the past, it is indeed possible to slow the growth in the education budget without significant pain and suffering. For example, in the aftermath of the Great Recession crisis, the school system proposed an extremely responsive budget, and even gave back a sizable year-end surplus, with minimal impacts to our children.

We ask the Westport school administration, Board of Education, PTA, teachers and parents to come together collaboratively to try to discern what areas of the education budget can be trimmed without impacting our children’s futures.  We know that in order to continually be a leading school district that we must continue to innovate.  That means evolving and becoming better consumers at every level.

This is not a circumstance of Westport’s making. None of us can be satisfied with the decades of financial mismanagement in Hartford. The unfortunate reality is that successful communities such as Westport are being forced to shoulder the burden of Hartford’s failures.

Let’s take our passion regarding our schools to the state. All Westport citizens should be telling our representatives in Hartford — Toni Boucher, Gail Lavielle, Jonathan Steinberg and Tony Hwang — that Westport will not stand for being the state piggy bank. This is where we should raise our voices and be heard.

Lee Caney
Sheri Gordon
Michael Rea
Brian Stern
Jennifer Tooker
Jim Westphal

41 responses to “Board Of Finance: “Education Budget Can Be Slowed Without Pain And Suffering”

  1. A. David Wunsch

    The median family income in Westport is over 150 k per year.

    Why can’t each family just pony up an extra 800 bucks ?
    ADW Staples 1956

    • The “we can afford” it approach is what bloats budgets in the first place and provides zero incentive for discipline and choice. Can’t fund every idea and program. We have a great school system and it can be kept as one of the best. But a few trends and events mandate fiscal discipline. Student population is expected to remain flat-to-down for near-term future. Towns are going to assume teacher salary and benefit increases “negotiated” by others which is why the budget is certain to increase for a few years. Will get a lot worse if state pushes pensions to towns. The good news is Westport’s tough choices are ones most CT towns would happily trade in a heartbeat. Reduced spending requests aren’t “cuts” except when spoken by those in government. But a reduced spending footprint is prudent and the time has come. Thank the Gov and his posse at the polls.

    • Richard Devcon

      If you just keep throwing money at the problem, there will never be enough. The system is designed to overspend no matter what the amount of the budget is. More money, more spending, and more overspending. The administrators are not fiscally responsible!

    • Valerie Smith-Malin

      I completely agree and told the BoF that in an email.

      • Valerie Smith-Malin

        Sorry– hit “return” too soon! I expressed our willingness to pay higher taxes in order to preserve the quality of life in Westport. $800 a year isn’t that much, especially when you consider the cost of attending just one Broadway show or professional sporting event.

  2. Bart Shuldman

    Thank you Board of Finance (less John Hartwell) for being honest with all of us. And thank you for all being together (except John Hartwell) on this difficult issue facing Westport.

    We thank you.

  3. And yet we continue to elect and reelect the the same political animals over and over. How can we expect a different result than what we have?

  4. As a senior citizen, I, too, want to express my gratitude and respect for the work you do.

  5. Adam Vengrow

    sadly this is happening all over the country. for too long both state and the federal governments have written checks they cannot cover. In Connecticut we have sent some important businesses to other states. People are making less money and there are fewer taxes being paid. Maybe there should be a much greater town hall and an ensuing town vote on what programs must stay and what must go. One of the reasons we love this town is for its education for all kids including special needs. We cannot pull back from education. This is our future. We also have an incredible police department. We have one of the highest arrest rates for drug trafficking passing thru this town in all of Connecticut. We cannot change the size, the pensions, and the appreciation for what keeps us safe. Why can’t we come up with a voting system in the town of Westport to vote on whatever we decide is most important. Bottom line, our community and the country is entering a new time period, where governments are broke. The government is not and will not be the fiscal answer. Those days are over. It is up to every citizen to understand basic math of you can spend what you have and thats it. So lets choose as a community what we should best spend our money on.

  6. Thomas Bloch

    I think the Town deserves a comment from John Hartwell on why he felt that he could not join in with the other BoF members in authoring their letter to the Town. Either he is in left field or doesn’t understand the gravity of the funding situation at hand.

    • Bart Shuldman

      Tom-he pays no property taxes. How could he understand the gravity of the situation.

      But hopefully he will explain his decision. I personally asked him but he refused to answer.

  7. Bart Shuldman

    Why did John Hartwell not sign the letter?? Is it due to the fact he pays NO Westport property taxes and is not affected by a potential tax increase to cover the costs the state is pushing down to Westport??

    • Bobbie Herman

      John Hartwell is currently out of the country.

      • Bart Shuldman

        Bobbie. I emailed John Hartwell yesterday (Sunday) and he answered my emails four times, a few within minutes. He refused to answer my question as to why he did not include his name on the letter. But he answered by sending me 4 email responses.

      • Bart Shuldman

        Bobbie Is John Hartwell really out of the country?

  8. Nancy Hunter

    When will the American tax revolt end? Never, apparently.
    It’s 2017, not 1776.

  9. Thomas Bloch

    Whether he pays taxes or not, he is an elected official who represents people who do pay property taxes. He should be recalled unless he gives his rationale for not joining his co-hearts in authoring the BoF letter to the Town. Hartwell is totally out of touch with his own Board.

  10. Richard Devcon

    Rather than waste your time and effort making noise at the State level you all should buckle down and deal with reducing the excessive spending you have become accustomed to and dependent upon. It’s time to bit the bullet and reduce the cost of education. Teachers can work full time and the extracurricular activities can be reduced.

  11. Interesting how many folks bitch and moan about “government interference” in our lives and “too much government” and, yet, when that overstepping governemnt pulls the plug on some of its “interfering”, they bitch and moan about that.
    Any budget, local, state, federal or domestic will have some “waste” in it. Let’s take the David Wunsch approach and get the extra funds by raisng taxes on them that can afford it.. and I’ll add,making certain that them that can’t afford it are covered.

    • Bart Shuldman

      Should we fear becoming Westchester and the negative effects it have on our schools and home prices? I think we better be worried.

      Fairfield County had an advantage over Westche as our property taxes and state income taxes were lower. Despite having a longer commute on Metro North for those commuting to NYC, Fairfield County and our town, Westport, became a favorite for those looking to move out of NYC and begin their ‘country’ life.

      With the potential for higher and higher property taxes due to the failure in Hartford to fix the state employee cost issue, and the constant news that Governor Malloy and his democratic caucus will tax the ‘rich’ more, Westchester is becoming mor attractive to those leaving NYC. Westport should be careful with raising property taxes and cutting education as people leaving NYC compare our town to others in the surrounding area.

      The train commute from Westport to NYC has become longer and we therefore become less attractive to families looking to leave NYC. As the budget woes continue in CT, will some families avoid Westport and instead chose the new Westchester areas, such as Bedford?

      Fairfield County with towns like Westport offered the country lifestyle with lower state income and property taxes than surrounding NY counties. Are we starting to see the end of the benefit?

    • Jeff Giannone

      Because you can’t raise taxes “them that can afford it” because property taxes are set through a process of property assessment and mill rate. It has nothing to do with income. You can raise the mill rate but that will effect all property owners. Having said that Westport’s mill rate is very low when compared to the rest of the State. So…bottom line, cut the budget or raise the mill rate.

      • Bart Shuldman

        Jeff. I am sure you know that Westport’s mill rate is a function of our home prices and effective management of the town’s expenses.

        After many years if poor fiscal management by Joseloff who did not fund the towns employees pensions and OPEB, using an accounting firm that had almost no municipal experience and miscounting how many employees were included in OPEB, Westport is now in great financial condition due to the leadership of Jim Marpe and our BofF and BofE.

        Many might not know how all three truly turned the fiscal situation in Westport around.

  12. Don L. Bergmann

    As one who has been engaged in the topic of the costs of education, our per student “operating” costs are $20,500 per student based upon the BOE’s approved operating budget, I am pleased with most of the concerns expressed. We really do have to make some changes to education in order fairly to address the needs of all Westporters.
    Don Bergmann

  13. Jim Westphal

    Unfortunately, there has been a lot of confusion about the state of the FYE June 30, 2018 BOE budget. First, the BOF did not “cut” spending by $1.7 million. In fact, the BOF approved an increase of $1 million compared to 2017. This is an increase of approximately 1% per student. The “cut” refers to the amount by which the BOF reduced the BOE request. By contrast, the Town’s budget (basically everything that is not in the BOE) actually is being cut by probably over 1%.

    Second, with respect to the School Outreach Message sent Friday stating that the BOE would now look at reductions in areas like freshman sports, music, all grade level assistants, etc., I am baffled as to what was NOT on the list. Thus far, Dr Palmer and her team have identified almost $1 million in items that could be removed from the original BOE proposal. In my view, they did a very professional (and unpleasant) job with that list under difficult circumstances. However, NOT on that original list and NOT on the School Outreach Message were (i) a $.5 million reduction in the health insurance reserve; (ii) any credit for initiatives to consolidate Town and BOE back-office activities that could begin now and presumably go into effect before the end of 2018; (iii) a reduction in stop-loss insurance payments, using the Town’s balance sheet to backstop them against high individual claims; and (iv) a freeze or reduction in payments for NEW 2018 initiatives NOT related to staff, classroom, and productivity investment (both cost and outcomes). The $.5 million drawdown to the health insurance reserve would actually not even require a change in policy from the BOE and leaves the BOE within the range of reserve levels recommended by their outside consultant.

    The BOF has made it clear that it would support any of the above efforts (including continued investment in productivity enhancements). In fact, there have been numerous public and private comments from BOF members to BOE members indicating a willingness to “backstop” the BOE for a situation in which their health insurance reserves were inadequate. Why wasn’t this potential $.5 million item (and the other above issues) even raised in the Community Outreach Message??

    Third, the cost containment plan embarked on by the BOF was a response to actions taken in Hartford. We considered an approximate $8 million hit from reduction in revenue sharing (and similar programs) and from a proposed transfer of teachers’ pension payments from the State to Municipalities. The BOF consensus was that we should take immediate action on $3.5 million of the $8 million possibility and wait to see what happened in Hartford on the remainder. We reduced the $3.5 million by $.8 million due to the expectation that a house owned and maintained by the Town but used by the BOE could be sold. We obviously did not think it would be prudent or practical to reduce budget proposals by the full $8 million but we were unanimous in our view that we needed to slow the overall rate of our budget’s growth. As a taxpayer and father of two children in the school system, I am personally appreciative of the efforts taken by the BOE and Dr Palmer’s team. But, frankly, both the BOE and BOF need to think more creatively about how we can work together. A good first step would be to for the BOE, BOF, and public to have a common set of facts to work with. I hope this note provides some of that.

    Jim Westphal
    BOF Member

  14. If the kids have to take a reduction in services, shouldn’t the teaches also take a pay cut? They need to take on some of this burden, too. Cutting programs, asking for residents to pay more taxes, and teachers just continue to get a free ride would be the worst thing you could do. The teachers need to take a cut too and meet the residents in the middle.

  15. Anne Fernandez

    There seem to be misconceptions here as elsewhere about teacher pay and teacher hours that would seem to need some setting right. US teachers are underpaid relative to teachers in other countries and to professionals in the US in careers requiring similar education levels: They also work well beyond their contracted hours and thus work “full time” (10+hours/day) already: These are some of the reasons we face a teacher shortage nationwide and why it can be difficult to find the kind of outstanding people who teach in Westport schools.

    Also, it bears mentioning that teachers pay taxes. Most teachers who teach in Westport can’t afford to live in Westport, so they commute, sometimes a good distance, from other CT towns, where they pay taxes. Those towns face similar budget issues from the state, so there is no “free ride” for teachers who are residents in Westport or elsewhere.

    • Westport teachers are the highest paid in the state. Time to give back.

      • Bart Shuldman

        Please stop beating up on the Teachers in Westport. Put the blame where it should go–Hartford and the decision by Governor Malloy and his supporters like Jonathan Steinberg that refuse that fix the state employee pensions and medical benefits that are destroying CT.

        Thank you Westport Teachers. You make our schools the best in CT!!!!

        • Dick Lowenstein

          Teachers are on the state pension system.

          • Werner Liepolt

            Teachers have no choice. Teachers must pay 6.5% of their salary after taxes into the state pension system. Teachers’ pensions are capped and when paid taxed by both IRS and CT state income tax. Teachers, believe me, are not getting a great deal financially. And when politicians and other ignorant people scapegoat them they’re being badly used.

            • Nancy Hunter

              — like school janitors, too.

              • Werner Liepolt

                I think school custodians in Connecticut are not much represented by unions any more as they have been mostly outsourced to contacted companies. But I am not sure. There have been some controversies involving Malloy and a crony who owns a maintenance firm that in Stamford and Newtown has been accused of wrong doing… But more to the point, what is your point?

    • Thank you, Anne, for speaking up on behalf of teachers! It is also worth noting that Westport teachers are not at all the highest paid in the state. Stop spouting ignorance.

      • Werner Liepolt

        In fact I understand that Westport teachers took a zero percent increase in two of the last five years while the economy was recovering and taxpayers were bailing out the financial community.

  16. Stacy Prince

    Dear Elementary School Parents,

    I know you want excellent schools. That’s probably why you moved here. Us, too, way back in 1993.

    But there are some things you may not know as you worry about cuts to the school budget.

    1) If taxes get too high and empty-nesters can’t afford to stay in town, they’ll sell. And we all knows who buys in Westport: Young families! With kids. Who need schooling. Which costs more money. The brutal reality is that empty-nesters are a great resource for the schools: They pay the same taxes you do, but they make very little use of town services. Keeping taxes steady helps keep the demographic balance workable.

    2) Westport’s wonderful teachers can and do deliver the most important aspects of a first-rate education. The real issue is how we, as a community, view “excellence,” and if we decide bells and whistles are what makes us feel proud of our schools. If we trust our teachers and subscribe to evidence-based education, it’s not so hard to say no to the next Smart Board or Turf field in favor of small class sizes in the elementary years, robust music education in the middle years, and an opportunity to be active several times during the school day.

    3) We should probably have a frank discussion about the privatizing of certain programs. Hundreds of thousands of private dollars are raised for sports teams, for theatre offerings, for Staples music (a costly Steinway piano, some years ago, replaced one that had gone bad because it simply hadn’t been maintained). Do we want to continue to cede control to special interest groups and allow them to fund-raise their way to glory while other programs languish? Should PTAs at one school with killer parent involvement (or one rich parent donor) have better playgrounds or libraries than the other schools? There’s money out there: Is there a way to harness it to benefit more of our students? A little general revenue sharing, perhaps?

    4) We all want wonderful schools! It’s not just about home values: Westporters are proud to be part of a vital community turning out wonderful scholars and citizens. None but the most curmudgeonly begrudges your kids’ time in the Westport sun!

    Poor governance at the state level (don’t even get me started on pension issues or delayed maintenance at the local level!) means towns across the state are going to have to make some challenging choices. But I’d argue that these decisions provide a great opportunity for us to define our community’s priorities.

    Westport must be financially sound if it wants to continue to provide the first-rate education that is such a huge part of our heritage, and our appeal.