Last week, the RTM unanimously approved the 2022-23 town budget, of about $222.8 million.
That could be the most underrated, underreported — and astonishing — story of the year.
Each spring for decades, budget battles consumed us. The Board of Finance slashed the Board of Education request. The Board of Ed fought back, with the backing of some — but not all — residents.
Parents argued for and against teachers and/or administrators. Westporters with no kids in school screamed at those who did, and at each other.
The next step — final approval by the Representative Town Meeting — was just as brutal.
Petitions were filed. Referendums were held. An entire political party — the Taxwatchers — formed in the crucible of budget wars.
Things calmed down in recent years. Still, town boards and the RTM did not always see eye to eye. Department heads were forced to plead their cases, sometimes for just a few thousand dollars.
As Washington has become more polarized, Westport politicians play nice. This year’s requests sailed through, with only a couple of adjustments made.
The numbers seem large: almost $138.7 million for education, about $84.1 million for other town operations,, plus the Library, health and transit districts, and Earthplace.
But the people who make the decisions — Democrats, Republicans and the non-partisan RTM (no Taxwatchers) — seem to agree that Westport is in very sound fiscal shape.
They like the bangs they get for our bucks.
Residents must agree. Peeps in town made very few peeps throughout the process.
Sometimes no news is good news. Washington, take note!
And the most significant news for taxpayers: The Board of Finance kept the mill rate the same, which means no tax increase for ‘22-‘23!
Dan, I think this is one of my favorite stories you’ve posted.
As a retired Westport educator, during my 22 years, I felt acutely the impact of those budget battles. Often, the special needs program that I worked for was on the cutting block. In fact, there are four specific years when program cuts were made and we lost staff positions, and two other years we lost most of the budget for our materials and curriculum. ‘Do more with less’ was the message delivered to the rank and file, while at the same time ‘Westport is a lighthouse district’ was projected publicly.
It was painful to see our students lose the support that made a very real difference in their lives.
To be honest, the cumulative effect of these battles on me as a teacher and member of the school system was demoralizing and exhausting. I think the toll on the impacted educators is simply not factored in when the politics gets heated. The tears shed privately in the staff rooms are not seen by the public. Budget battles erode the sense of trust necessary to a sustain a community of professionals who are daily offering their heartfelt service.
I’ve taken a lovely sigh of relief reading your news of how smoothly the budget process went this year. I am grateful that my remarkable colleagues can continue to bring their whole hearts and minds to serving the children of Westport. We are all the better for it, whether we have our own children in the system or not.
Bravo to you, Dan, for using your post today to reflect back to us all a moment of town cooperation. May we sustain this spirit of working together toward Westport’s common good.
You are correct, Dan, about those budget battles, and I was also there to witness it and participate in it as an RTM member in the 1980s and Board of Ed member/chair into the later 1990s. It was an annual ritual where the Board of Finance cut a significant amount from the Board of Ed budget, and the RTM often restored some or most of it. So what changed? First, the significant increase in student enrollment happened along with a need for new and refurbished schools. The parents of those new students spoke and voted. Second, a new generation of elected leaders saw the need for these budgets. Westport has been fortunate for many years now to have excellent financial leadership from both parties.
Dan, thank you for your article. Ira, thank you for your insights and service. As for my perspective, Westport has always been very supportive of our public educational system. I served for 12 years on the BOE and followed Ira as Chair for four years. The change agent which was the most challenging for Westport and its taxpayers which is often forgotten or ignored is that the student population in Westport’s public schools almost doubled from the mid 90s to the early 2000s. The result was many more teachers and employees, over 175 million dollars of school expansion. Westport went from 1 high school, 2 junior high schools and 3 elementary schools to 1 vastly expanded high school, 2 renovated/ new middle schools, one brand new from the ground up, and 5 elementary schools.
That is a real change agent.
Certainly with some tumult during this time Westport remained and remains very supportive of its public school system.