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Westport Schools Dodge the Budget Ax

WESTPORT, Conn. – Applause filled Westport’s Town Hall auditorium Thursday night after the Board of Finance unanimously approved the Board of Education's proposed operating budget of $100.2 million — without making any cuts.

This operating budget reflects an increase of $2.1 million, or 2.17 percent, over the current year.

“I’m going to be bold and say I’m not going to advocate any slicing and dicing of this budget,” Janis Collins, one of the newest members of the board, told school board Chairman Don O’Day before the vote. “I believe you’ve done an excellent job.”

Including a revenue offset budget of $160,273 that Board of Finance Chairman Avi Kaner said comes at no cost to taxpayers, and debt services repayment, the total overall Board of Education budget is $114,580,337.

Although the board did not make any cuts, the issue of class size came up during the discussion. Board member Tom Lasersohn, who has children in the school system, said he’s concerned about growing class sizes.

Based on enrollment projections, class sizes in the elementary schools are moving closer to the maximums set by the Board of Education. For example, kindergarten classes in at least three schools are projected to range from 20 to 21 students per class. The district's maximum is 22 students for kindergarten and first grade.

The maximum size for second- through fifth-grade classrooms is 25. The projected class sizes in some of the schools range from 23 to 24.5.

“My daughter is at Coleytown [Elementary], and for the past several years, she’s been in classes of 24-25, and I think that’s too high,” Lasersohn said. “The conventional wisdom is that a really great teacher is what makes a difference, and class size does not. But I don’t agree. There’s a qualitative difference when you’re in class of 20, 21 and 25.”

With that in mind, Lasersohn said he was perplexed that the proposed budget eliminates nearly eight teaching positions. Hoping to inspire the Board of Education to make class size reduction a priority, Lasersohn made a motion to reduce the budget by $200,000. He said he would urge the board to seek restoration, during which he would fully support putting that money back if the board made a commitment to lower class sizes.

He later withdrew the motion after O’Day promised the education board would re-evaluate the break-point policy that would result in class size reductions.

On Tuesday night, the finance board approved a $73.48 million budget for the town . Combined with the approved education budget, the finance board approved a total Westport budget of $188,070,154 for the 2012-13 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

The Representative Town Meeting, the town's legislative body, will vote on final approval of these budgets in May. Afterward, a new tax rate will be set.

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