"This is a significant number," Palmer acknowledged at a Board of Education budget workshop Tuesday night.
But she pointed to rising costs and reductions in State aid at a time when budgets have remained relatively stagnant. Over the past five years, spending changes were zero in 2010, a 1.64 percent increase in 2011, 1.05 in 2012, .93 in 2013 and negative .03 percent in 2014, according to Palmer.
"The district has continuously increased its efficiencies and effectiveness, budgeting only for the essential needs to realize its educational goals and maintaining an appropriate workforce necessary for the educational program of those students enrolled each year," she said.
Weston is in District Reference Group (DRG) A and Palmer said it is not keeping up with comparable towns when it comes to investing in its schools. According to Palmer, five year actuals for compounded budget increases from fiscal year 2010 to 2014 shows:
- Weston 3.63%
- Easton 5.29%
- Ridgefield 9.03%
- Redding 9.53%
- Region 9 10.73%
- Westport 10.80%
- Wilton 10.92%
- New Canaan 12.89%
- Darien 25.37%
Stating Her Case
In past years, Palmer said the district had been able to offset cost increases through savings and reductions in other areas. However, she said it is unable to do so this time around.
The main drivers for the requested increase include: Employee benefits $790,948, contractual wage increases $756,798, special education $619,083 and transportation and other contractual increases $124,248.
Of the major increases requested for 2015, Palmer said 95 percent are contractually or state mandated.
One hit the district absorbed this year was an unanticipated increase in enrollment. Palmer said a projected decrease of 65 students actually turned out to be an increase of 70 students due to a spike in the Weston housing market. As a result, three additional elementary school teachers had to be hired.
As overall student enrollment has fallen, Palmer said the district downsized over a six-year-period, reducing 12.83 full time teachers for a corresponding decrease of 177 students.
Though Weston Public Schools was hit with numerous cost increases entering 2014-2015, this does not mean the district didn't find savings.
Completion of a contract with Energy Education saved $63,600, the conclusion of a one-time legal settlement saved $48,132 and the elimination of a .6 full time equivalent saved another $37,094.
"While there are numerous smaller savings in dozens of line item accounts, their summative value does not substantially mitigate the significant increase of this overall budget," Palmer said.
Safety & Security
School shooting incidents around the country has sharpened the focus on school security. Palmer said the safety and security of Weston's students and staff are the district's first priorities.
Her budget request continues with nine security personnel and allocates funds to cover the costs of Mile of Safety at $75,000.
Palmer said the presence of a police officer is the number one deterrent for criminals and Mile of Safety ensures a Weston officer will be on campus every day for nine hours while schools are in session.
A $400,000 supplemental appropriation from the district allowed for the hardening of security around the perimeter of Weston's schools, enabled administrators to carry handheld radios to communicate directly with police, and added at least one person at each school to check visitors as they arrive on campus.
In summing up her budget request, Palmer said it "maintains the high quality of excellence of academic achievement and student success. It ensures that the quality of standards embraced by the Weston Board of Education, Town of Weston, and its citizens are preserved."