It’s been one of the strangest years in recent budget season history for Wilton, as the road to finalizing the town and school budget for FY2020 has had its share of unusual events. The most recent example happened at Tuesday night‘s special meeting of the Board of Finance, which met to consider allocating funds from the Town’s charter authority–the contingency fund–to cover the first year of a new, Alternative School Program.

The alternative school program was budget originally proposed by the Board of Education, but when the BOF slashed $1.1 million from that proposed school budget, the BOE couldn’t guarantee that it would still keep the alternative school program–something seen by many as both a progressive and cost-saving way to educate some of the district’s most vulnerable special education students in-district–as part of the school budget. Superintendent Kevin Smith was fully behind the program, but said if he had to make such steep cuts from his budget, he’d protect existing programs before funding new ones.

An 11th-hour proposal put together jointly by First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice and BOE chair Christine Finkelstein convinced the BOF to ‘save’ the program Tuesday night. The BOF voted 5-0 on a motion to commit to funding one year of the alternative school program out of the charter authority after the July 1 start to FY2020. The charter authority is the money set aside each year by the BOF as a contingency fund–basically, a ‘just in case’ fund to use if events arise causing the town to face unforeseen expenses after a budget is set.

There was also a technicality:  because the BOF can’t officially allocate anything from that charter authority until after July 1, 2019, when the new fiscal year starts, the members could only vote to approve their intent to authorize the money.

The rescue of the program wasn’t without its unusual and tense moments. Those came in the form of admonishments from some BOF members who said they wanted to see the program–a likely money saving one–succeed, but weren’t thrilled about having to fund it outside of the BOE budget, from the charter authority.

But there were other tense moments that originated in the audience as well. Shortly before the BOF passed their motion, two members of the public in attendance declined to follow the procedural order set by town officials, who had established a “no public comment” setting for the meeting. The two members of the public were opposed to the alternate school program for seemingly different reasons, but nonetheless, they both made moves to disrupt the official discussion.

In the end, Wilton got its alternative school program funded, and now the challenge for the town boards lies ahead on May 7 to get the remaining budget passed by the town at the Annual Town Meeting.

Plan Details–The Financial Perspective 

First Selectwoman Vanderslice presented the financial benefits that the alternative school would bring to Wilton, and positioned it as a program that would help reduce the risks faced by the town.

She explained that over the last 10 years, the average annual growth in BOE spending has increased 2.7%; in that same period, special education spending has increased 3.9% annually. But spending on outplacement and legal settlements for special education students has increased annually 13.9% on average.

Vanderslice said implementing the program would actually help manage risk to the town.

“From a financial perspective, this is really a risk management assessment. There is no insurance to mitigate the financial risks associated with meeting our SPED obligations. In addition to other benefits, it’s a means for us to manage the BOE to manage their financial risk,” she said.

She outlined the total budgeted cost for one year of the Alternative School Program as $468,000, which school administrators say would serve 15 students. Given that the estimated cost for outplacements range from $75,000 to $110,000, Vanderslice said the “…financial risk of funding the program is much lower than the risk of not funding it.”

At $468,000 to fund, the breakeven point for student outplaced at $75,000 apiece is 6.24 students; at $110,000 per outplaced student, the breakeven is 4.25 students, Vanderslice said.

She also estimated the risk of using the Charter Authority as being low. Historically, she said the town has rarely had to use the money it sets aside for contingencies. And given that one of the greatest possible threats for which the town would consider dipping into that fund is the threat of lawsuits from families seeking outplacement, she said that threat is actually being addressed by the Alternative School Program. (In addition, she pointed out that the Bd. of Selectmen has set aside reserve funds for potential legal costs, something the town has not done before–further reducing the town’s risk.)

“Using the Charter Authority to fund the program does not create a likely risk for the town,” she said.

The fund balance exceeds 10% in anticipation of a possible pension push down

As time passes, the likelihood of any major push down from Hartford occurring in FY2020 vs FY2021 or thereafter diminishes It may be larger than we think but not catastrophic in 2020, if really big in 2021 more likely, because every town is in the same position we’re in finalizing budgets.

Her final statement to the BOF encouraged the members to see funding the Alternative School as “a smart opportunity to help the most vulnerable students in a cost effective way. “You have an opportunity to do something that is both good
for our town and our students and their parents, and which will reduce or avoid costs next year and in the future.”

Plan Details–The Educators’ Perspective

Superintendent Smith and Andrea Leonardi, Wilton’s assistant superintendent for special services–and the architect of the alternative school program, who built a similar program in Fairfield–were invited to the microphone to answer questions that the BOF had sent ahead of time about the educational merits of the program.

The program is meant to serve students who have a difficult time learning in a traditional school environment, and for many, struggle with the emotional and social aspects of middle and high school. Many of the students “avoid school” because of the size of the mainstream programs as well as the social, emotional and academic demands of Wilton’s program.

They explained that the alternative school program was constructed with the help of a coalition of parents, clinical professionals, support services professionals, students, teachers and staff. To estimate the number of students who would likely need the alternative school, the team looked at the past five years, and reviewed each student who fit the likely profile of attending such a program, including when they started to struggle and what that looked like.

“We came up with estimates of students who without a program would likely need an outplacement, along with other students who might be able to survive in Middlebrook or Wilton High School but will do so with more struggle than success. That’s how we came up with the numbers of students likely to need this program,” Leonardi explained.

The hope with the alternative program, she continued, is to remove them from the intensity of the typical program, provide them with the skills they need, and then hopefully, bring them back eventually into the larger millieu equipped with the skills “…to prevent the cycle of failure that results in the kids doing really scary, unhealthy things, to prevent a lot of the crisis activity. It’s a primary prevention model to teach skills before the crisis, or the cycle of crisis that is far more expensive to mitigate.”

She added that currently some students being outplaced attend programs very far away from Wilton, with some spending up to three hours a day on a bus to get there. Being able to provide comparable programs in district would eliminate that stressor as well as enable those students to build relationships here where they live–by giving them more time to participate in extracurricular activities and experience more time within the Wilton community.

“They go there because their needs are met. If they can stay here, they should have a richer experience than they have in outplacement. They go there because it helps them survive. If they could stay here, they could share their many talents here.”

Costs for the program would be built into a separate line-item for the alternative school, although some teacher training and professional development costs would be shared with the general population school accounts. “There are still students in the schools with the same needs, and we want to make sure we train up all the staff and we’ll share resources this way,” Leonardi explained.

She and Smith added that other towns run similar programs for similar reason, including Darien and New Canaan, which have opened the most recent programs, and Fairfield and Greenwich, which have long-standing, larger programs. Weston and Westport are exploring doing the same thing. “The need is not unique to Wilton,” Leonardi said.

BOF Votes to Approve

Before giving their votes, each of the BOF members gave an opinion about why he or she was supporting the alternative school program funding proposal.

John Kalamarides said, “This program is an extraordinary program, you’ve done a great deal of work and preparation, it’s very well thought out. “The students, how hard they have to work, the budget is put together very nicely, the parents are crying out to have this program. I’m very much in favor of the program.”

Ceci Maher said, “I could not be more in favor of this. I understand the impact on children trying to fit within a system that is not bad, but doesn’t fit for them. The idea of bringing children and providing support and grow in the direction clearly lays out opportunities beyond school. Additionally, the proximity to parents and the class cohort, the fact that the child doesn’t have to leave town… that whole idea of grounding in community is so important. I would prefer we didn’t cut it, so therefore we have to fund it.”

Walter Kress said he has supported this program publicly for a long time. “I see this from financial perspective, but I also see the other benefits. I know a couple children who will potentially join the program. I think it mitigates a risk, given how quickly this is growing.”

However, he did add that he wasn’t happy with the impression that this was the first program the BOE had thought to cut, considering that it was a student-facing program. “I’d like to not hear about student facing things on the chopping block.”

The benefit of the program outweighed one other element that Kress was also uncomfortable with–the thought of dipping into the charter authority to fund the program. “I’d put that akin to Lynne coming to us, saying, ‘Unless we get this from the authority, we’ll eliminate snow plowing.’ If it was something else I don’t think I would support it. I think there are other opportunities in the budget [to cut], and I know you have to find other opportunities.” He urged administrators to “not make noise” about other student-facing programs, specifying world language at Cider Mill.

Peter Balderston called the proposal ” It’s a thoughtful and innovative way to manage the historically explosive costs of Special Ed,” and recognized Leonardi for developing it. He also praised town and school CFO Anne Kelly-Lenz for being critical to keeping the budget low. He called them “the kinds of behaviors the BOE needs to regularly exhibit as the school continues to wrestle with year-over-year declines in enrollment and higher-ratcheting cost structures.”

He echoed Kress about a student facing program being on the chopping block. “I don’t know why you would hold hostage a program that actually saves money.”

He had other concerns he wanted to express, about funding the program through the charter authority.

“I don’t really see why the BOE would hold in abeyance a sizable $1.1 million Continuing Education fund which has been accumulating for over 6-8 years, but instead ask the town to fund this out of a budget-busting account meant for unforeseen things. We’re essentially budgeting here. Why would we ask the taxpayer – through Town Charter reserve – to fund this when the school already has these funds available? Why we would prioritize the cut of a very valuable and cost saving program over, not diminishing the continuing ed program and say, we want to keep this pile here and ask the taxpayer to fund it?”

He added that he was voting in favor of the proposal that evening because, “Anything that can save money for the town in a thoughtful way we should do all day long.”

However, he added that next year, with the program potentially on the budget again, the school district should not think about funding the Alternative School in the same way.

BOF chair Jeffrey Rutishauser said that for him, the biggest piece was slowing down the cost growth of outplacements. “Anything we can do to arrest and slow down that growth curve deserves a shot, try to do things to slow down that explosive growth, anything double digit will consume the budget.”

He added that it’s rare “to see government programs that can pay for themselves, this has the promise to do so and slow down growth of budget on both the town and school sides.”

Audience Drama

Before the vote, one member of the audience called a Point of Order, requesting that the participation of Smith and Leonardi be stricken from the record. He alleged that because the meeting had been labeled as one without public comment, and their names did not appear on the agenda, their comments should not be part of the record. BOE chair Finkelstein noted that the questions they were answering had been submitted ahead of time by the Finance Board members and answered in writing, and that Smith and Leonardi were simply reading or expanding on the answers that had already been provided.

Officials said they would get a ruling from town counsel following the end of the meeting as to whether the complaint had merit. Vanderslice told GMW that town counsel Ira Bloom confirmed it was “appropriate for us to have them as part of our presentation.”

In addition, another resident, Paul Bologna, tried to engage in commenting and questioning the proceedings, and calling the alternative school program a ‘boondoggle.’ He tried to ask questions, but Vanderslice reminded the BOF members that they were not supposed to engage with the public.

Bologna later spoke with GOOD Morning Wilton after the meeting ended.

He identified himself as a special education attorney, and asserted that the move for an alternative program was a move away from more inclusive programs of recent years, that the effort would be one that would remove students who “don’t fit the model for Wilton Public Schools,” because school officials “want nothing to do with that diversity.”

“Rather than have an inclusive program, this will segregate them under guise of alternate school. The education system is not addressing the diversity of how students learn. So if you are diverse, in terms of learning styles, Wilton wants nothing to do with diversity. That’s why they have swastikas, that’s why they have no tolerance for diversity. They’ve proven it tonight–see something out of the ordinary, get rid of it. That’s what this is about. There’s no surprises here. It’s sad.”

Bologna also alleged that an alternative program won’t be able to provide the necessary specialized resources that are found in other established programs.

“What makes Wilton think that they can do this for $30,000 a student? They have their own challenges in the mainstream, let alone specializing–they don’t have the resources, they don’t have the professionalism. It’s an experiment on our most vulnerable students. To think they’ll do a better job than institutions that have been around more than a decade, and charge $60,000, and they say, ‘We’ll cut the price in half.’ You think you’ll get apples and apples? No, you’ll get apples and oranges.”