The school budget, per pupil expenditures, and taxes were some of the main topics of discussion at the Board of Finance candidates debate held Wednesday, Oct. 23.
The League of Women Voters of Weston sponsored the debate. It was moderated by Jean Rabinow.
The panel of candidates were incumbents Patty Kopas (R) and Melissa Koller (D), Dick Bochinski (D), who is currently filling a vacancy on the board, and political newcomer Allan Grauberd (D).
Some of the key debate questions and responses were as follows.
What can be cut in the school budget that will not affect the quality of education?
Mr. Grauberd said the school board has done a credible job in the past several years reducing its budget and coming in with minimal increases. It’s up to the school board, not the finance board to determine how its budgetary allotment should be spent, he said. “The finance board should determine affordability.”
Ms. Kopas said she appreciates the school board’s efforts and the workshops they hold during the budget season to keep people informed. “It’s not our place to determine their priority. Sometimes money can be saved on insurance, shared services, and transportation, but all of that it is up to the priority of the school board,” she said.
Ms. Koller said the school board has done an “amazing job” in the past five years identifying where it can cut costs. “We call it ‘pulling a rabbit out of their hat,’ she said.
Unfortunately, she said, she doesn’t see that continuing. “Last year we saw that if the budget was cut any further it would be cutting education,” she said.
Mr. Bochinski, who resigned from the school board this spring to take a vacated seat on the finance board, said Weston is fortunate that the school administration is conscientious about how to reduce costs without harming the quality of programs or making significant reductions in certified personnel. “They’ve done it smartly,” he said.
He said Weston is one of only two districts in the DRG (district reference group) that have saved millions of dollars thanks to efforts by the superintendent and school business manager. “We’re running out of opportunities, but even in transportation it’s all been well done,” he said.
What is a sensible upper limit of Weston’s expenditures per pupil, what is too much?
Ms. Kopas said she didn’t know the answer to that question. “What I do know is we still rank in the top four in the DRG in per pupil costs. The formula for that comes from the state. We have a lot of operating expenses to deal with and are challenged every year to find ways to lower our costs. It’s important to collaborate and sit down and come up with a consensus. The Blue Ribbon is a great honor for the school system to achieve and we have done this with cost effectiveness,” she said.
Ms. Koller said per pupil expenditures have been declining and Weston has lower per pupil expenditures than other towns. “Our district is half the size of other districts. We need to compare apples to apples,” she said.
The good thing is that next year the state is going to require every town to put the same things into the per pupil expenditure calculation so it will be more accurate, she said.
Mr. Bochinski said it was difficult to pick a number and put a limit on it. “There are certain drivers in the school budget, such as insurance, which is only in our control when we can move the design of the plan through contract negotiations. Salaries are another driver and are subject to state regulations. You do the best you can,” he said.
Mr. Grauberd noted that Weston’s enrollment is projected at 2,417 students and Westport has 5,799 students. “That disparity causes Weston’s per pupil expenditures to be as high as at is,” he said.
He said the theory that Weston’s per pupil expenditures are high is somewhat overstated. “The top four school districts are all around the same number and not much different,” he said.
How would you improve the budget review process to maximize community understanding and input prior to the ATBM?
Mr. Bochinski believes the budget process is about as transparent as it could possibly be, especially with the school board workshops. “The public could be well-informed watching channel 79. Meetings are open to the public and it’s all there. The Weston Forum covers these budget meetings and publishes budget data. Budget information is available before the public hearing. The ATBM is not well attended, involvement is not there. It’s unfortunate,” he said.
Mr. Grauberd would like to get more information out to the community, perhaps through a mailer.
When it comes to the budget, Ms. Kopas said there are a lot of numbers involved. “It’s not glamorous and it is a big learning curve. It’s tedious but it’s transparent,” she said.
She believes the lack of attendance at public hearings and the ATBM might mean people are satisfied with the budget.
Ms. Koller acknowledged that there is some public apathy toward going to workshops. “Their vehicle is he finance board public hearing,” she said. She noted that if the public thinks it isn’t being heard, people won’t attend meetings. “Last year the public overwhelmingly spoke out to the finance board to keep the school budget as it was but the board cut it,” she said.
There may have been apathy at the ATBM last year, she said, because the public was frustrated and didn’t feel anything could be done to fix the school budget.
Does Weston stand to gain if the car tax is eliminated? If not, in what way would our spending options in the town be reduced?
Ms. Kopas said the state is not generous with money toward Weston. “You never know with the state if we’re getting money back,” she said.
If the car tax is eliminated she said the town would figure out a way to make things work. “With its Aaa rating Weston is stable, which will help if that tax is eliminated,” she said.
Ms. Koller said the car tax is only a small portion of the town’s overall tax income. “Other things would be more disastrous. Weston is capable of dealing with it,” she said.
Mr. Bochinski said residents will still want an excellent school system and police force so taxes other than personal property taxes will have to be collected. “We will all end up paying for it anyway,” he said.
Mr. Grauberd agreed with Mr. Bochinski. “At the end of the day it’s all fungible money. I can’t say it will have a big effect. If the car tax goes away you have to get the money from somewhere else.”
Can regional efficiencies reduce Weston property taxes and if so, how?
Ms. Koller said the finance board is exploring that issue but trying to lower taxes through regionalization isn’t going to happen overnight. “We need communication within boards in this town first. If we want to share facilities and expenses we need more communication and willingness to compromise.”
Mr. Bochinski said regionalization of voluntary services could be salutary and there may be some gains to be had in sharing special ed facilities, but it bothers him when regionalization isn’t voluntary.
Mr. Grauberd said regionalization is worthy of exploration for the purchase of goods and services. “But we need to keep control over things we prize deeply and not lose control of our world,” he said
Ms. Kopas said she doesn’t like regionalization. “Once you start telling people what to do you can get unfunded mandates,” she said. But she said she would be willing to explore opportunities.
The finance board debate was filmed and produced by Margaret and Al Wirtenberg and is available on demand on Weston Government Access Channel 79, daily at 11 a.m. It is also available on the League of Women Voters website, lwvweston.org.