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Weston finance board cuts school budget

Weston finance board listens to residents at the budget public hearing. From left, Michael Carter, Mike O'Brien, Stvee Ezzes, Melissa Koller, and Patty Kopas. —Patricia Gay photo

Weston finance board listens to residents at the budget public hearing. From left, Michael Carter, Mike O’Brien, Steve Ezzes, Melissa Koller, and Patty Kopas. —Patricia Gay photo

Weston homeowners can expect their property tax bills go down next year for the first time in recent memory.

The Weston Board of Finance approved a 2013-14 budget that includes a school budget lower than the current year’s and a town operating budget that adds just one additional police officer, not two as requested by the police department.

With a 5-2 vote, the board on April 4 approved a school budget of $45,575,418 — $11,774 or 0.03% less than the current year’s budget. By state law, the town is allowed to reduce its school budget since enrollment has declined.

The expected mill rate is 23.89, which is 0.13 less than the current mill rate, a decrease of 0.54%. A mill is equal to one dollar for every $1,000 of assessed value on the grand list.

Board members Melissa Koller and Steve Ezzes, both Democrats, voted against the lowered budget.

Democrat Mike O’Brien, and Republicans Michael Carter, Chairman Jerry Sargent, Patty Kopas, and David Finkel voted to approve the budget.

The amount for the school operating budget that will go to voters is $718,250 less than the budget proposal approved by the school board, and $190,000 less than the $528,250 adjustment the school board later said it could make based mostly on favorable health insurance bids.

Rationale

All seven finance board members agreed the school board and administration did an excellent job of coming in with an extremely low proposed increase. However, most also thought staffing decreases were not keeping pace with declining enrollment.

Mr. Sargent acknowledged it was “an odd budget season” because it’s strange to criticize an education request with such a low increase. However, he said, it’s time for the schools to make fundamental “structural” changes.

“My belief is we as a town, and the Board of Education specifically, need to get much more aggressive making these structural changes,” he said.

If changes to the way education is delivered are made “the right way,” Mr. Sargent said, “it can become a competitive differentiator for us… I’m convinced we are at an inflection point. It’s here right now.”

Mr. Carter agreed with Mr. Sargent that structural changes are needed, especially given the drastic decline in enrollment.

Specifically, he said he’d like to see less emphasis on smaller class sizes (leadership and great teachers are more important, he said); e-learning and “blended learning” as the “new paradigm of teaching;” changes to “archaic” union rules; and more of a focus on making investments that have long-term benefits.

On the other hand, Ms. Koller said while she agrees with the need for some structural shifts, “I think this budget is lean almost to the point of being too lean.” She said she believes the class sizes are too close to the upper limits set by the school board and it is important to keep those low.

Ms. Koller also said the “overwhelming feedback” the board received from the public was to keep the budget as is, or even to raise it. “We need to be receptive to that,” she said.

Mr. Finkel said the schools have done a good job, but must continue to “be able to do more with less.”

Weston faces negatives such as a flat grand list, no industry, and declining enrollment, but on the positive side it has a single campus, a very engaged community, and a reputation for excellence, Mr. Finkel said. With the top caliber of administrators, he said, “this town and administration is in the best possible position to change the paradigm … but we don’t have much time.”

He added he would like to see a formal plan for blended learning created and enacted over the course of the next year.

Ms. Kopas agreed with other members that “this is a watershed year for us.”

She called the administration’s essentially flat budget an “incredible gift.”

At the public hearing, Ms. Kopas said, people spoke most about security, safety, and technology, and the consensus seemed to be that this year, security is the most important issue. As far as technology purchases, she said, “I think you need more teachers than you do computers.”

Mr. Ezzes said in all his years working on town budgets in Westport and Weston, this year should have been among the easiest because the increase proposed was so low. “For some reason, I’m not happy with it,” he said.

Mr. Ezzes took issue with the notion that a “school” budget and a “town” budget are such separate entities. “One tax dollar” goes to both places, he said.

He said he would like to see more sharing of services and more long-range planning to help mitigate costs.

Mr. O’Brien was the last to sum up his thoughts. He said he and most Westonites have always been very big proponents of a great education system, but he is concerned “staffing doesn’t seem to meld with enrollment.”

Mr. O’Brien said he would like to see a flat budget, and he believes that’s possible by eliminating the request for contingency teachers — supplemental appropriations would be granted if it turns out those teachers are needed, he said.

“I’m convinced [a flat budget] is not going to hurt. I think we can do it,” Mr. O’Brien said.

Town budget

The board also approved a town operating budget of $11,713,441, a 3.52% increase over the current year. This is $23,000 more than the budget approved by the Board of Selectmen due to workers’ compensation bids that came in higher than expected.

The approved town budget includes the costs associated with hiring one additional police officer. The police department originally requested two new officers, which would have brought the total of patrol officers to 11, but the selectmen had previously  approved the addition of only a 10th officer.

Because the finance board had gotten a lot of feedback from the public, the Police Commission, and the police chief regarding the request for a total of 11 officers, the board spent some time at its deliberation meeting discussing that possibility.

Weston police Sgt. Mike Ferullo provided the board with a cost analysis of nine vs. 10 vs. 11 officers in regard to overtime pay.

Sgt. Ferullo said an 11th officer would be able to reduce overtime enough to offset the cost by about $12,000 — which would still mean an additional cost for the extra officer of about $90,000 when salary, benefits, etc. are factored in.

Chairman Sargent said at the beginning of the meeting that there seemed to be some misunderstanding about what an additional officer would mean in terms of coverage at the schools.

Four security officers at the schools — bringing the total to nine — have already been hired and they are also in next year’s budget, Mr. Sargent said.

A school resource officer (SRO) was not on the table at this time, he said, because the town and the schools are still in the process of working collaboratively to determine if one is needed and what the duties might be. If one were to be hired, Mr. Sargent said, it is likely that wouldn’t happen until at least January 2014, and then it would be done using a supplemental appropriation.

Mr. Sargent said he believes there were some misunderstandings about coverage of School Road during the school day, and how additional officers would affect that coverage.

Sgt. Ferullo and First Selectman Gayle Weinstein assured the finance board that the “Mile of Safety” — the name given to School Road and the school campus — will be covered for a full nine hours every school day (an increase of three hours a day that has been in place since the school shootings in Newtown in December) regardless of whether the town pays for the extra time with overtime or with straight time.

After hearing the cost analysis and what various numbers of officers mean in terms of scheduling, Mr. Ezzes asked Mr. Sargent to poll members to get a sense of whether anyone would entertain a motion to add an 11th officer to the budget. The sense was the board would not, so no motion to do so was made.

Capital and debt service

The finance board also approved a capital budget of $1,116,228 — a $285,555 or 20.37% decrease from the current year.

After the finance board vote, First Selectman Gayle Weinstein said, “I’m pleased they supported the operating and capital budgets we put forth. I think both are responsible budgets that meet the needs of the community.”

Also included in the budget to go to voters is an approved debt service budget of $6,554,632 — a $95,073 or 1.43% decrease.

The total combined budget that will go to voters for approval at the Annual Town Budget Meeting (ATBM) Wednesday, April 24, is $64,959,719. That is just $6,437 more than the current approved gross budget, a 0.01% increase.

The school and town budgets approved at the ATBM will go to a referendum. Voters may cast ballots by machine vote immediately following the ATBM at the high school library or on Thursday, May 2, at the middle school gym from noon to 8 p.m.

Absentee ballots will also be available at the town clerk’s office beginning Thursday, April 25.

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