Parents voiced strong support for the education budget as well as additional police officers at the finance board’s public hearing on the 2013-14 proposed budget.
About 150 people were in attendance at the public hearing held Wednesday, April 3, at the Weston Middle School cafeteria.
First Selectman Gayle Weinstein spoke on behalf of the proposed $11.69-million town operating budget.
She said public safety initiatives were the main drivers for the increase. The budget includes a 10th police officer position, additional equipment for the Fire Department, and additional hours for the fire marshal.
Ellen Uzenoff, school board vice chairman, presented the proposed education budget. She said the schools were aggressive this year evaluating “needs” rather than “wants,” and were presenting a “bare bones” budget.
The school board was requesting an operating budget of $45.76 million, $178,226 more than the current budget. The number was $528,250 lower than was initially approved by the school board last month because there were additional savings due to favorable health insurance bids ($438,307), a retirement ($44,576), reduction of a full-time teaching position to a 0.6 full-time equivalent ($24,730), a change in the schools’ technology lease ($15,294), and a lower quote on liability, auto and property insurance ($5,343).
Of the 35 residents who had comments, 28 expressed support for the education budget as requested by the schools, as well as the addition of a school resource officer (SRO) and an 11th police officer, whose primary function would be to cover School Road, where all four Weston schools are located.
School Road is currently patrolled by the Weston Police Department nine hours a day when school is in session. At a previous finance board meeting, police Chief John Troxell and police Sgt. Mike Ferullo requested an 11th patrol officer to allow coverage of School Road with less overtime costs incurred.
The selectmen’s budget included the Police Department’s request for a 10th patrol officer, but not an 11th officer.
The selectmen’s budget request also did not include the SRO position, which the department wanted on a contingency basis should the school board approve the position.
The selectmen said if the school board does decide it wants an SRO position, the request could be made for a supplemental appropriation to fund it.
In support of the school budget, parents said they moved to Weston because of the schools and were concerned about increased class size if the budget were to be cut.
Tammy Roberts asked the finance board not to lower the school budget because changes in the schools would make Weston “less attractive to future buyers.”
Janice Waterman said she chose to live in Weston solely because of the schools. She asked the finance board not to “whittle away” at the school budget.
Parent Megan Crouch related a personal story about a shooting at a school she attended in Pinellas, Fla. She said the assistant principal, Richard Allen, who had helped her get into college, had been shot and killed in the school by a student. That school, she said, was forever known for that incident. “We don’t want to be known for a shooting,” she said. “Don’t let Weston be that school.”
Police Commissioner Jess DiPasquale said the schools needed the SRO and 11th officer as a deterrent inside and outside the schools in order to make sure the schools were secure.
Fellow Police Commissioner Susan Moch said the Weston Police Department was understaffed. She asked the board to put the two officers back into the budget.
“We don’t want a tragedy like what happened in Newtown,” said Bob Ferguson, who asked the board to pass the police budget as originally proposed.
Cathy Greene supported the school budget and additional police officers, and also asked the finance board pass the Fire Department’s budget as requested.
On the flip side, several residents asked the finance board to make further cuts to the education budget request.
Harvey Bellin asked the board to reduce the school budget to a 0% increase.
He complimented Colleen Palmer, superintendent of schools, for reducing the initial budget request, but said more needed to be done in light of declining enrollment. “Enrollment is down but the cost per student is up by 19%,” he said.
He said Weston had the highest K-12 per pupil expenditures in DRG-A, the district reference group of towns in the state with a similar socio-economic status.
He was also critical of school salaries compared to town salaries and noted that 56 school employees, many of them teachers, made more than the town’s police chief.
He asked the board to “send a message” that the “old paradigm is over,” and to make cuts in order to protect the town’s viability.
Calling Weston “the most expensive” K-12 school district in the state, Neil Horner also asked for cuts to the school budget request. He said the school budget had not been “cut to the bone,” as all the cuts made were due to reductions in operational costs. He called projected enrollment declines “real” and criticized the schools for not having a long-term plan in place to address them.
Frank Billone asked for cuts in both the town and school budget requests and requested that the board “cull through” the town operating budget to see if it could cut the proposed 3.3% increase by half. “I believe you understand we are competing for future homeowners. Ensuring substantially lower tax increases than our neighboring towns may be the only card we have to play,” he said.
He was also concerned that keeping the budget increase low due to cutting the capital budget could mean the town is putting off needed expenditures for asset replacements. “This could show up in a big way in future budgets and can come back to bite us at a later date,” he said.
The finance board met the following night, Thursday, April 4, to vote on the budget requests. See related story.
Photos: Margaret Wirtenberg