Earlier this month the Board of Education was dealt a surprise setback when the Board of Finance reduced the proposed 2019-2020 operating budget by $1.1 million.  At last night’s regularly scheduled Board of Education meeting, schools superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith presented his list of suggested cuts that he and school CFO Anne Kelly-Lenz were able to make to total that $1.1 million in reductions.

The proposed cuts were approved by the BOE and the revised budget will be presented to the town for approval at the May 7 Annual Town Meeting. Finkelstein noted that she hoped supporters of the schools would attend the Town Meeting to prevent any further reductions.

“We are operating on a 0.0% budget. If there is a motion from the floor that succeeds in cutting our budget further, it would really be dramatic for the schools. So I encourage all supporters of the schools to come out and attend the Town Meeting.”

The largest reductionchunk comes from eliminating the $468,000 budgeted for the newly proposed Alternative School Program. However, that cut is just a dollar amount on paper, as the program will be funded instead out of the FY2020 Charter Authority. The BOF agreed earlier this week to provide one year of funding that way for the program that is viewed as both a progressive and cost-saving way to keep in-district some special education students who typically would be outplaced.

Bd. of Education chair Chris Finkelstein said her board was grateful to First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice, who she credited with coming up with the creative way of funding the program, and to the BOF for unanimously agreeing to idea.

Describing his “long list” of cuts, Smith agreed with the assessment by one board member:  “It’s a lot of nickel and dime-ing… The strategy is to share the pain.” Many of the cuts came in the areas of professional development and teacher salaries.

In addition, for several cuts, he described the approach as “making it work.”

Smith outlined the other areas where he proposed making cuts:

  • Deferring the hiring of a new, full-time kindergarten teacher:  Smith’s original budget included an additional section of kindergarten, to keep up with projected enrollment. He called eliminating the position as a “calculated risk.””Right now we have 186 kids registered. We haven’t seen historically 65 kids materialize between now and August, although that did happen [recently] in third grade,” requiring a last-minute addition of a new Cider Mill class and teacher, “…so I’m not saying it’s off the table or out of the question.” He said if the enrollment numbers do materialize, administrators would have to find those funds for another kindergarten teacher within the budget at the time.
  • Deferring the hiring of a half-time pre-K teacher as well as .75 paraprofessionals:  Earlier in the evening, Miller-Driscoll principal Kathy Coon had presented about the pre-K program’s strength and growth. Administrators had intended to open a sixth pre-K classroom, to accommodate the annual growth in the second half of every school year when the pre-K program typically sees an influx of new students who turn 3-years-old that they have to start providing special education intervention services.Now, describing this cut, Smith said the BOE could see the ‘significance of this reduction.’“We’re managing it now, as you heard from Kathy, it’s tight, and our intent is to manage it next year too.”
  • Foregoing the hiring of one of two proposed Community Steps job coaches:  With another growing program, Smith had planned on two positions to work with the district’s students in the 18-21 special education program, assisting alongside students working in job placements out in the community. Smith said with the program’s growth it would be “problematic” to eliminate both positions, but that they will try to make do with just one job coach.“The bottom line is it’s a choice and we’re going to manage it as best as we’re able.”
  • Eliminations and reductions in the areas of training and conference, contracted services:  Smith said the four school principals “reorganize priorities” to make cuts. Multiple smaller reductions were made “in as many places as we could, rather than try to eliminate whole things. If we had multiple people going we tried to pare it down. An example, we proposed sending 2-3 people from each school to go to Powerschool University,” he said, noting that the district originally had a goal of building deep capacity within the district staff for dealing with the district’s widely-used, very complex student database. However, “…rather than send 7-8 people, we’re going to send two. We’re not letting go of it entirely, but we’re going to just reduce it significantly.”
  • Reduction in number of substitute teacher days:  Along with fewer conferences and trainings for district teachers, there will be a corresponding reduction in the need for substitutes, as cuts in conference and training means teachers won’t leave the classrooms as frequently as anticipated.
  • Elimination of additional half-time athletic trainer at Wilton High School:  When asked whether this cut would present a health and safety issue, Smith said that the high school athletic director Chris MacDougal told him, “‘We’re making it work now, we’ll just make it work.’ They had proposed the athletic trainer to enhance the services that they were providing our athletes, and to have two half-time trainers as [multiple] games were going on, one at the stadium, one at Lilly Field. And so now we’ll have one go back and forth.”
  • Elimination of other consultant services:  Smith described this as “letting go of the musical accompanist at Middlebrook, forego guest speakers at the high school public speaking classes, and proposed guest speakers for the Peervention program.”
  • Technology lease purchases:  After placing a spending freeze in this account midway through the current 2018-2019 school year, the schools moved a needed $250,000 expense to 2019-2020. Reductions will come from various places around the district to cover this. Among the examples Smith discussed were reducing summer clerical support, including “dialing down” the usage of “a loyal cohort of student interns,” deferred purchases of athletic equipment and general supplies from across the district; deferred textbook purchases; etc.Referring here to the “nickel and dime-ing…,” Smith described examples at Cider Mill, where principal Dr. Jennifer Falcone has reduced per teacher allocation by $50 each, and will no longer purchase student planners out of the budget
  • Kelly-Lenz also said she’s monitoring medical benefits expenses, workman’s comp and dental benefits, and at the moment, all of which the town and school are below on what was budgeted.

Reflecting on Funding Plan for Alternative School Program

BOE member Lory Rothstein asked about how the decision for funding the Alternative School with Charter Authority funds for 2019-2020 will impact the way its budgeted for in subsequent years.

“This was never meant to be a pilot, this was an ‘all in or nothing.’ Now we have money to start it, what about it will be two or three more years until it breaks even. How do we pay for it then?”

Smith reiterated the district’s commitment to the program.

“We would not start a program that we would let go of in a year, especially for some of our kids we would identify as the most vulnerable. Now we’ve dug a hole in our budget,” he said, adding “That’s the work we’re doing…”

BOE member Deborah Low said that being on the line for the expense would be the case regardless of whether the alternative school was funded by the charter authority or the BOE budget: “It would have been a recurring cost [anyway]. It would have been this [FY2020 budget] year and next [FY2021 budget] year, and now it’s starting next year.”

As Finkelstein said, “It temporarily alleviates our situation.”

Kelly-Lenz explained that even though the charter authority funds won’t become available until July 1, she has structured the budget so that the district can begin expending the funds now, for any groundwork in starting the program as soon as is necessary. “It’s a cash issue, rather than a spending issue. Once we have approval I transfer the cash to that line item.”

As a result, there will be no delay on preparation or planning. As Andrea Leonardi, the assistant superintendent for special services who oversees the alternative school, explained, job openings for the program already are posted, and the bulk of staff training required was earmarked for summer months anyway beginning after July 1, “…because contracts won’t start and staff wouldn’t be on board until July 1 anyway.”

Before the BOE voted unanimously to pass the cuts Smith outlined, Low thanked the superintendent and the district leadership team for being “as thoughtful as possible in coming up with a list [of cuts] that does spread out the pain. It is unfortunate that some things have to be deferred, and …I did not like the drama or process, but these cuts were as reasonable as possible. The most critical things we need are still in there.”

Controversial Continuing Education Surplus Account Explained

Finkelstein asked Smith to address the Continuing Education account that has received a lot of attention during the budget cycle. It’s something that the BOF characterized as ‘surplus,’ given that it holds well over $1 million, and is something the Finance Board pointed to multiple times this budget season as a place that could single-handedly cover the $1.1 million budget cut it made.

Smith said the account is earmarked for other expenditures, and described why it accumulated over the years.

“The primary reasons are, one–is [Continuing Education coordinator] Delores [Tuffariello]‘s magnificent work listening to the community, expanding programs and having terrific response. The user fees are up. The second area, about half-million dollars are areas where the board was partially subsidizing the costs of the program–payroll taxes, contributions to health insurance for full time employees. Over the last 10 years, only one year (2011) where the account ran negative, he said, noting that there’s been between $25,000-$100,000 annually in surplus contributed to the account, amounting to a total just over $1.2 million in surplus in that account.

In the future, Smith said that large a surplus won’t be carried forward, but that he has allocated spending all but $200,000, which will be kept in case of future cost overruns and other expenditures.

Beyond that the remaining funds would be used to address some of the facilities where Smith said improvements are needed and which will benefit both the Continuing Education program as well as the general education efforts. All told, there will be about $1.16-$1.17 million spent in the following areas:

  • The culinary room at the high school will receive $400,000 in upgrades, including adding gas stoves, a walk-in cooler, and new furniture.
  • Similar improvements at Middlebrook’s culinary room, where equipment upgrades need to be purchased.
  • Projects at both Middlebrook and Wilton High School Library Learning Commons, totaling $175,000 for each.
  • Other smaller needs–new panels in the Middlebrook gym, a new Cider Mill gym divider and addition of a new divider at the Miller-Driscoll gym

The BOE members said they were “happy to see these funds being used,” and viewed the planned expenditures as “an appropriate use of this money.”

They also discussed the need to generate a policy for how to govern certain accounts like this one.