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Wednesday, January 17 News

Health insurance ‘iceberg’ from past year causes school budget hike

WESTPORT — Though down almost a million dollars from first projections, an initial draft of the Board of Education budget for 2018-2019 is up 4.19 percent over the current fiscal year.

On Tuesday, Superintendent of Schools Colleen Palmer debuted the first official draft of the budget — available at westportps.org — which represents a $4.7 million increase over last year for a total of $119,179,202.

“I understand obviously (this) is a number that we wish could be lower,” Palmer told the school board Tuesday night.

The large part of that requested increase, according to Palmer, comes from a health insurance “iceberg” debt created when the Board of Education pulled from the district’s health insurance reserves to offset the current year’s budget increase.

“When you do so, it helps that one year, but it creates a more long-term challenge if you can’t sustain those efforts,” Palmer said.

To replenish the debt created when $1.5 million was pulled from the district’s health insurance reserves, and to contend with roughly $1 million in unanticipated health claims over the past 12 months, 62 percent of the $4.7 million requested increase will go toward medical insurance.

Because the proposed increase due to all other budget items is relatively conservative, at only $1.8 million, Board of Education member Vik Muktavaram said that he felt the replenishing of the health insurance reserve fund should be looked at discreetly from the other budget requests.

“To me even looking at this as a 4.19 increase is sort of misleading,” Muktavaram said.

Also noteworthy is a projected drop of roughly 100 students, mainly at the elementary level. As a result, Palmer said, the district will be able to cut two elementary school teacher positions. The number of buses to Coleytown Elementary School, where ridership is at a district-wide low, will be reduced by two. District wide, however, the requested increase in cost per pupil is up 6.21 percent, from $20,323 in 2017-2018 to $21,585 in the proposed budget.

“As we look at enrollment projections, I think sometimes there’s a misnomer, people say, ‘Oh, you have declining enrollment, you should be able to save so much more.’ We are adjusting for enrollment, we are adjusting our classroom teachers and supports,” Palmer said.

Board of Finance Chairman Brian Stern, who spoke during public comment, noted that, in part because of the new federal tax plan, which will negatively impact many residents with “expensive houses and fixed incomes,” a tax rate increase this year would likely not be well received.

“We have to be enormously sensitive,” Stern said.

He added that, as both the school and town budgets are in their early stages, it’s the right time to look at all variables, including options for health insurance and per-pupil spending, to save money.

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“We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’ll be there working there with you guys,” Stern said.

justin.papp@scni.com; @justinjpapp1

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