Reaching another milestone in the FY 2024 budget process at last week’s (March 15) meeting, the Board of Finance asked some final questions on the budgets proposed by the Board of Selectmen (up 2.15% year-over-year) and the Board of Education (up 4.5%), and began to grasp what those higher budgets would ultimately mean for the Town’s mill rate.
The two-and-a-half-hour-long meeting revealed how the individual BOF members are formulating their positions on the budgets and the projected 5.69% mill rate as they head into two key public hearings scheduled for March 21 and March 27.
Far from reaching a consensus, the board members are taking polar opposite positions at this juncture. Two members seemed ready to support the current budget proposals while other members — including BOF Chair Michael Kaelin — said the resulting mill rate is untenable.
But of those opposed to the projected mill rate increase, Kaelin was the only one to take aim at any specific component of either the BOS or BOE budget by suggesting where savings could be found. Kaelin took a direct shot at the nearly $1.4 million the school district proposed spending on instructional coaches.
First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice also made some of her strongest statements on the budget to date, clearly trying to discourage the BOF from budget reduction tactics that would unfairly impact the BOS budget (which is up 2.15% to $34.7 million) relative to the BOE budget (up 4.5% to $90.6 million).
A video recording of the entire meeting can be found on the Town website.
A Closer Look at the Budgets
Before delving into the mill rate discussion, the BOF took another close look at the BOS budget proposal. First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice attended the meeting to address BOF questions on the $34.7 million budget proposal the BOS had voted unanimously to adopt last month.
Vanderslice discussed the proposed 2.15% increase for FY’24 in the context of the 0.86% average annual increase over the past eight years.
“Over the last eight years, we have worked to make structural changes that have permanently reduced the cost of municipal government,” Vanderslice reminded the BOF.
Vanderslice proceeded to outline the BOS budget’s major expense items — notably employee costs such as wages, medical benefits and retirement plan — as well as expected revenues and where earlier estimates are now firming up.
Possible Reductions, If Required
While defending the BOS budget as proposed (including the planned hire of an additional police officer), Vanderslice also anticipated that the BOF would seek reductions to the budget she is requesting. She came prepared to discuss where she would look, if necessary, to cut the proposed BOS budget.
Among other things, Vanderslice said she would have to consider:
- Deferring funding for the planning phase of Cider Mill pond dredging — a multi-year project that will be necessary at some point
- Increasing user fees for Parks and Recreation programming and the Transfer Station
- Reducing the Wilton Library Association and Wilton Volunteer Ambulance Corps grants, which would mean more fundraising (or budget cutting) for those entities
- Reducing budgeted wage increases for open-contract or non-union employees
- Reducing the salary of the First Selectwoman’s position
In all, Vanderslice identified $427,000 in possible reductions but emphasized that was only if required by the BOF; otherwise, she would not willingly recommend any reductions to the Town.
In written exchanges with BOF member Chris Stroup prior to the March 15 meeting, Vanderslice explained her calculation behind the $427,000 figure was based on the BOS’ share (15%) of the combined town and school proposed budget increases and a mill rate (3.5%) she believes voters will find acceptable.
“Based on my sense of the community, I believe a mill rate increase acceptable to voters, once adequately explained, is in the range of 3.5%. A 3.5% increase requires a reduction of $2,710,000 in expenses. The BOS requested increase equals 15.4% of the combined BOS/BOE requested increase, or a proportional share of the decrease of $427,039,” Vanderslice wrote.
Vanderslice acknowledged the BOF’s authority to set budgets.
“Under the Charter, it is the responsibility of the BOF to review the budgets and determine where the BOF thinks there is an opportunity to reduce the budget,” Vanderslice wrote.
She seemed to be suggesting the BOF wouldn’t find any room to cut in the BOS budget. More directly, she made the point that asking the BOS to reduce its budget proportionally more than the BOE would send the wrong messages.
“It sends two bad messages,” Vanderslice wrote. ” [First], in the future, the Board of Selectmen should play the game of overstating our budget request to be at least as high as the BOE’s so as not to be disproportionally impacted by reductions. [And second], more importantly, the work of the police officers, firefighters, highway drivers and other BOS employees and the services they provide are not valued as much as the work/services of the BOE employees.”
BOE Holds The Line
Wilton Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith and BOE Chair Ruth DeLuca also attended the March 15 BOF meeting. They both maintained the budget they’ve proposed is already as low as they would recommend.
Smith kept his comments brief.
“I don’t want to belabor it. I think you have the information you need,” Smith told the BOF. “We’ve made a couple of rounds of reductions in this budget. We’ve made reductions in those lines in previous years… that’s not where we would find any big dollar reductions.”
“At this point in time, if we make reductions, we’re looking at services and staff,” Smith said.
In fact, his FY’24 budget proposal already reflects staff cuts. In the past, some members of the BOF have pointed to declining student enrollment to ask whether staffing should follow accordingly rather than increase as it has in the past. This year, Smith’s budget does eliminate nine teachers at Middlebrook to match a drop in student numbers.
DeLuca reinforced Smith’s comments.
“This budget really is a reflection of both the current economic and inflationary environment, and the necessary resources to sustain and advance the mission and the values of what is known as a Wilton education,” DeLuca said. “That’s where we find ourselves right now.”
Mill Rate Discussions
Wilton’s Chief Financial Officer Dawn Norton gave the BOF a brief overview on the mill rate calculations, including some of the more complex factors such as the use of Excess Fund Balance.
Kaelin invited his fellow board members to respond to the bottom line 5.69% mill rate increase. The following are the key comments offered by each board member:
Vice Chair Stewart Koenigsberg initially called the 5.69% increase “just insulting,” but was more conciliatory in his subsequent comments.
“I think both the Board of Education and the Board of Selectmen have done a very admirable job in trying to find the right balance for their constituents in coming up with those budgets,” Koenigberg said.
“Having said that, I do believe that 5.69% might be too high, perhaps significantly too high for many of the constituents,” Koenigsberg added. “I think we’re in a challenging spot right now.”
Chris Stroup said he was inclined to support the proposed budgets.
“Directionally, I am happy to support the budgets that have been proposed by the Board of Selectman and the Board of Education,” Stroup said. “I know both boards adopted their budgets after a rigorous review of the services that they believe they ought to provide, and understanding the costs to provide [them]. And in both cases, I believe that the budgets were passed [by the BOE and BOS] without opposition.”
“I’m not troubled by a 5.7% increase in taxes,” Stroup continued. “I, like everyone else, would like to have more for less, but as we’ve discussed repeatedly here, these budgets are a reflection of values. And I would not be surprised if this community of Wilton supported a 5.7% increase in taxes to provide the services that have been articulated in these budgets.”
Sandy Arkell was also reticent to squeeze the budgets any further.
“I talk to a lot of parents in town, [who] I would say are fully supportive of the Board of Education budget. I do think, in the Board of Ed budget, there’s really not a lot of opportunity [for reductions],” Arkel said. “If I look back on the past few years, we’ve been pretty tight with our budget increases, and at some point, especially in an inflationary environment, you can only kick the can for so long and you’ve got to pay the piper.”
“What I hear parents talking about is the huge need for the academics, for the social-emotional support within our student body,” Arkel said. “The only tradeoff that I really see is the tradeoff of increased classroom sizes. But I think that comes at a cost that they’re not willing to make. I think this is a very thoughtful process from both boards. Right now, my indication is people are supportive of the budget increase.”
Like Arkel, Raimondi said he had spoken with numerous Wilton residents — but with different conclusions.
“The sense I get is that there is significant opposition to a [5.69%] mill rate increase,” Raimondi said. “The feedback I’ve received really across the board is that we are in a time of high inflation, and yes, that does impact our budgets… but that’s also impacting our residents as well, our friends and neighbors, and people want to see some fiscal restraint because of that.”
“I am not in favor of a 5.69% increase, or anything near that,” Raimondi stated.
He didn’t suggest areas for budget reductions.
“How that triangulates down to the Board of Selectmen or education budget is hard to say,” Raimondi continued. “I understand the difficulty there with [reductions] that the [BOS and BOE] have to make if we were to cut them. So I am reserving judgment on exactly what I would do, but I will say something probably has to be done because 5.69% is too high.”
Rich Santosky said he believes there still might be opportunity to reduce the proposed budgets to a level more taxpayers will find acceptable.
“While a lot of people will want to support both budgets, they will not want to support a 5.7% increase in the mill rate. I think that is beyond the level of what our taxpayers are going to tolerate at an eventual Town Meeting,” Santosky predicted.
“To say that we’ve exhausted all opportunity for savings… I think we haven’t gotten there yet. We can deliberate, but I do suspect that we will have a hard time in a Town Meeting with this 5.7% mill rate increase.”
BOF Chair Kaelin spoke last, challenging the public to disabuse him of the perception the mill rate increase is too high.
“If it was up to me individually as a taxpayer to vote on the budget today, 5.69% is a non-starter,” Kaelin said. “I’m not going to support that, as a taxpayer.”
“The only thing that’s going to make me change that as a member of the Board of Finance is if the public overwhelmingly communicates to me, to the rest of [the BOF], in the public hearings, by writing us by email, or by filling out the survey, that they’re okay with that [increase].”
“If they support the 5.69% increase, then they have to tell us that,” Kaelin repeated.
Unlike his fellow board members, Kaelin suggested one area where he thinks budget reductions might be possible.
“I’m the only one pointing out one specific item, in one specific budget,” he said. “We are spending close to $1.4 million on coaches for teachers. We are not spending that money on people to teach your children. We’re spending it on people to help the people and coach the people that teach your children.
“I’m just telling the Board of Finance, and the public, I’m troubled by this,” Kaelin said. “I’ve listened and watched all the justifications for the coaching program that have been provided by the schools, and I agree with them. It’s a terrific program, and it has merit, but I’m being asked to pay for the program as a taxpayer. And in a year when we’re looking at a 5.69% increase in taxes, do I want to pay $1.4 million for coaches for teachers? My answer is no.”
“We went through what our responsibilities were as members of the Board of Finance with town counsel. We have a responsibility to determine if there are places in the budgets where we could find savings. There’s a place in the Board of Ed budget where I think we can find savings,” Kaelin concluded.
“I’m just being as blunt and as honest as I can be right now, that I don’t get it yet,” Kaelin said. “So if the public wants to have an impact, at least on my vote, they’re going to have to tell me this is what they want and they’re willing to pay for it.”
Upcoming Public Hearings
Public Hearing on the BOS Budget: Tuesday, March 21, 7 p.m., Comstock Community Center Room 31 and remotely via Zoom (find the Zoom link on the meeting agenda posted on the Town website)
Public Hearing on the BOE Budget: Monday, March 27, 7 p.m., Middlebrook Auditorium and via Zoom (Zoom link will be on the meeting agenda once it is posted on the Town website)
I’m grateful in this situation that while the BoF gets to set the total, they don’t get to decide what it’s spent on; the district seems very committed to its instructional coaching program (and with good reason) and I suspect that if the BoF does cut the budget by that $1.4M, the district will find a way to hit that number with other reductions.
Personally, while I’d prefer that the budget be fully funded, if they do have to cut things I’d look at making team athletes pay for their cost of their coaching / transportation / etc; Wilton is not going to be a force in interschool athletics regardless of how much we spend on it, and it seems a bit unfair to me that this particular extracurricular receives school funding while so many others don’t.
But I believe both Kaelin and Santosky are up for re-election this November, and I hope that if they do vote to cut the budget that every WPS parent remembers that and votes accordingly. Though in Kaelin’s case we’re probably stuck with him unless the DTC chooses not to re-nominate him – I can understand welcoming him in with open arms back when the Democrats were a lot weaker, but between last November’s legislative victories and another consecutive year of Kaelin voting like a Republican I would hope that maybe they would reconsider that decision now.
Yep, 5.69% increase is insulting. Taxes consume too much of citizens’ income. The BOE spending habit is simply out of control. Instruction ‘coaches’ is just more overhead and doesn’t lower the teacher-pupil ratio. [Lynne Vanderslice] suggests several cuts to the BOS budget but there’s more…eliminate the “Town Manager” position that was not necessary.
If a coach makes a teacher 10% more efficient – so that they’re achieving the same outcomes with a class of 22 kids that a teacher without coaching might achieve with 20 – that would seem to be both an excellent and financially-prudent investment.
And the BoS budget includes I believe $153k for the Wilton senior center (of which it looks like we get back $8k in fees); it seems like a good and valuable program, I’m happy it now seems to be returning to operating fully in-person, and I think we ought to keep and fully fund it, even though it doesn’t happen to benefit my generation, but if Wilton is in such desperate fiscal straits that we can’t afford to pay for both the senior center and enough math tutors, maybe we should keep the math tutors.
Town seniors have been funding college level AP courses for years…maybe it’s time to have parents chip in tuition enough to cover AP teacher salaries and benefits …yeah, that’s a better way to cover costs some desperately want to spend
I have yet to encounter a Wilton resident who is speaking out against the Board of Education budget. In the budget meetings I have been to, the support of the budget is unanimous, and residents are willing to make the investment needed in a time of inflation to maintain our top notch schools. My fear is that some members of the Board of Finance are approaching this with their own agenda of sacrificing support for our schools in the name of lower taxes, as opposed to taking an honest read of the interests of this town.
I consider Wilton as a transit town. Where young families come to for a better life and schools for their children. After their children graduate, their parents put up their homes for sale and most leave. Are we going to depend on those 90% or the 10% who decide to stay until retirement and those who pass on? That is the ultimate question.
Many of those parents would probably stay if it was possible to downsize to a smaller, cheaper home without leaving Wilton; people have friends and social networks here, I don’t think they’re necessarily eager to leave, but it’s hard to justify continuing to own a 3500sf house once your kids are gone.
More senior-friendly housing – *not* “senior housing,” but nice little walkable townhouses and duplexes and other small friendly things, ideally at around half the size + half the price of the average Wilton home now – would encourage more people to stay here after their kids graduate while also greatly lowering their share of the property tax burden if they do; a win for everyone.
I am a parent and I do not support a 5.7% increase in Mill Rate for our taxes. I also support BOF Chair Michael Kaelin in his attempts to rein in costs.
We need to flip the dynamic of Wilton being a town where people reside as long as they have kids in the school system. It is not healthy for real estate, or continuity, to have families leave as soon as their kids go to college. If we can improve the value proposition of Wilton so all residents are inclined to stay, we should do this. Keeping our taxes at a reasonable level is a crucial start.
The school budget is the crucial area for examination – saving $428k in the BOS budget is really not impactful. What I would like to know is if we are maximizing the dollars we are already spending before we increase funding.
The above budget mentions $1.4 million for coaching. Is this value for money? I don’t know but I would like to see the numbers. Has it led to higher MAPS scores since implemented? Have the rankings of the school system improved vis a vis our peers since coaching has been in place? Is coaching so important that the BOE will implement it anyway and cut $1.4 million from elsewhere? Worth a discussion.
Instead of looking at funding from last year and moving up or down, how about conducting a zero-based budget analysis? Start with a blank sheet of paper and build a budget from the ground up. Until this is done, and we can prove that every dollar we spend is fit for purpose, I suggest we hold the budget flat.
Also, please show me the analysis that shows that more money equals better educational outcomes. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) for the 2018-2019 school year (thank you ChatGPT), New York City School District, NY was $28,000 per student. Does this mean that New York City’s education system is better than Wilton’s and producing better outcomes? Clearly it is not.
Perhaps as a town we should think creatively about the BOE budget? What if we implemented a “uniform tax” on each pupil in the school system? While I am not advocating moving to actual uniforms, maybe a new “uniform” each year is required for pupil to enroll in the school system. Implementing a fee that approximates to a usage would make the system fairer for everyone: those with no kids in the system pay nothing; those with multiple kids pay more. In other words, usage drives cost and funds the budget. A system like this might even allow the town to ultimately lower property taxes. Not saying this is the solution, or that it is even legal in CT, but we should think creatively around our impasses.
Congratulations, you just invented private schools.
If we want people to stay in Wilton, we need to build a wider variety of housing so that they can reasonably afford to do so after their kids graduate. Under-funding the schools will simply start our property values on a downward spiral from which they’ll never recover; if you can’t get your kids a great education by moving them to Wilton then why the heck would you pay the premium to live in Wilton instead of somewhere cheaper? I know conservatives would love to get rid of public education altogether, but if that’s what you want, there are all sorts of other states that are embracing that project much more eagerly than Connecticut is.
New York spends $28,000/year on its schools because everything is a lot more expensive in a city and their students have generally more complicated needs; it’s not a remotely fair comparison, and in any event I suspect a great many Wilton parents wish they had the opportunity to send their high schooler to a place like Bronx Science or Stuyvesant.
Holding the budget flat against a background of high inflation is effectively cutting it; that’s how money works. Maintaining the status quo would be increasing it in line with inflation, which is what this budget more-or-less does; if you want to increase it by less than that then the onus should be on the budget cutters to explain where the excess is and why it should be cut (and “I don’t understand the point of coaching” is not a good explanation).
I should add, though, on the ‘creative thinking’ front, that I actually think I see one point of potential common ground between us, in that if we do have to cut the budget, I think one interesting place to do it would be in charging for participation in sports, since so many other extracurriculars (and, for that matter, sports too in the lower grades) are not done through the schools and have to be paid for separately and/or run through private volunteer operations.
I’d like it even better if the schools offered a full program of extracurriculars for free, but if we’re not going to get that, why is it fair that some kids have to pay the full cost of whatever their weekday after-school activity is while others don’t?
To clarify, there is pay-to-play at the high school. Students involved in sports pay $125 per season. In addition, most sports have parent booster organizations that ask families to pay a booster fee that often covers some gear and uniforms (e.g. practice jerseys or other items). WHS also asks students to pay a participation fee to be members of extracurricular clubs.
I believe Middlebrook also has a participation fee for extracurricular clubs as well.
Thanks, I’m aware of that but my understanding is that those fees are considerably less than the cost to the school of offering sports programs. (I added “full cost” in my second paragraph when proofreading but neglected to add “full price” or something similar to the first, sorry)
Following up on my previous comment, checking the proposed budget it looks like they list $120,000 in total revenue from participation fees, but the boys football program alone is budgeted at $142,000 (net, after gate receipts) – $27,000 just for travel – and if you add on all of the other sports you’ve got a sizable portion of the $1.4M the original comment is complaining about. Unless I’ve badly misunderstood something in my reading of the budget. (which is, admittedly, possible, but in that case I believe I would be in good company with several members of the Board of Finance)
And to reiterate, I actually think all of this should be paid for by taxpayers, along with a whole lot of other extracurriculars, but if we’re going to cut budgets anyway, this seems like much lower-hanging fruit than more fundamental changes like raising student:teacher ratios or whatever.
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