Tuesday, May 2–GOOD Morning Wilton will be live blogging this evening’s Annual Town Meeting, from the Clune Center starting at 7:30 p.m..

It really would be better for eligible voters to attend tonight’s meeting, than to follow along online. Tonight’s meeting is very important as the budget numbers you’ll eventually vote on are set tonight. What’s been proposed by the Board of Education ($80,572,640, 0.0% increase over FY’17) and the Board of Selectmen ($33,208,876, 3.0% increase over FY’17) may not be what voters will eventually consider.

If you want to make a motion to reduce the budget, or if you want to argue against lowering the budget, that must be done in person tonight at the meeting. By the time you go Saturday, you’ll be voting on what gets decided tonight. Both are important, but wouldn’t it be great if all the seats are filled at tonight’s meeting–and if YOU add your voice to the very important process.

See you at 7:30 p.m.!

7:30 p.m. The meeting is Live!

Scott Lawrence has been elected moderator.

Lawrence has appointed town counsel Ira Bloom as parliamentarian. Lori Kabak, town clerk is reading the call.

Here’s the agenda:

7:35 p.m.  Bloom is making explaining how the meeting will be run. He is introducing a resolution establishing procedural rules: 1)  that the meeting will follow Robert’s Rules of Order; 2) speakers will be held to 3-minute time limits (6-minute on multiple bonding resolutions); 3) defining “Call the Question” and when it can happen (urging everyone to hold off on making this motion until everyone has had a fair chance to voice their views, and Lawrence, the moderator has the discretion to allow some to speak before actually voting on the call to question; and 4) adopting a “filling the Blanks” rule.

That means if there is a motion to cut a particular budget by a specific amount, the Moderator will then ask for other suggestions to see if anyone else proposes a different amount. If there are several suggested dollar cuts, each will be considered to “fill in” the “blank.” There will then be debate on all the suggested cuts and a vote will be taken on each proposed cut, starting with the largest, and ending if at any point one of the cuts gets a majority.

The first resolution passes.

7:45 p.m.:  Bloom is reminding the town about what the Town Meeting can and cannot do with regard to reducing budgets and line items.

According to the Town Charter, the Town Meeting may not (per §C-30):

  1. Appropriate more money than the Board of Finance has recommended for a particular line item;
  2. Appropriate money for any purpose not recommended by the Board of Finance and represented by a line item;
  3. Reduce any line item below the Town’s legal obligations;
  4. Reduce one line item to create an increase in another line item.

According to the Town Charter, the Town Meeting may:

  1. Reduce particular line items within the Board of Selectmen’s recommended budget;
  2. Reduce only the total recommended Board of Education budget—not a particular line item.
  3. Reduce the debt service appropriation, but not below legal obligations.

7:46 p.m. Bloom is explaining that the Town Meeting can amend the proposed budget. It cannot amend the bonding resolutions.

There can be motions to amend the liquor ordinance question; but if it does get amended, then the town has to reconvene another special meeting.

The other referendum question on 2 Rod Highway cannot be amended.

Board of Finance chair Jeffrey Rutishauser has taken the mic.

He is reviewing Budget highlights:

Total operating expenses are up 1.04% or $1.3 million.

We have lower tax revenues to offset moderately increased spending.

The mil rate increase will be 1.58% or $1.85 million

We are facing a reduction in municipal aid from the state–approximately a $1 million reduction. That trend may continue.

The Grand List is currently $4,313,626,900. Residential property makes up 76% and commercial property is 14%–something that Rutishauser says the town needs to grow.

The grand list growth is “anemic” and a “concern”

7:57 p.m. Lynne Vanderslice, first selectman is now presenting

Here’s what’s in the FY’18 BoS budget:

The 55 and older population grew 36% and is a population that will continue to grow.

The Budget reflects savings:

What the budget doesn’t reflect but is reflected in the Board of Education is that the town’s facility director is working as the facility director for the schools as well.

The Budget reflects a 3.13% increase over FY’17. The drivers are:

The town buildings all need work and town owned residences need work.

Here’s how the drivers break down:

Here’s how operating capital looks:

The biggest items for police are new cars; a new dump truck for public works and new life-saving equipment for the fire department.

In summary Lynne says the town is being prudent and has saved money.

8:10 p.m. Bruce Likly, Board of Education chair is now presenting

Taking care of your kids is a job we take very seriously. The BoE presentation is also on the BoE website.

Likly says he’d be remiss if he didn’t talk about great things about the district, highlighting the strongest things in yellow:

Likly says in his 8 years they have never come in with a 0.0% increase before as they have this year.

This year the BoE looked at all cost centers to provide better clarity and transparency.

Salaries are dropping, because they reduced headcount by 16; they are losing approximately 42 students; they are “trying to toe the line” on benefits. “We’re making adjustments to address enrollment, contracts and accounting.”

Where salaries and benefits are changing:

Some accounts have been consolidated so variances will appear high this year.

Transportation costs are going down with the reduction of one bus and contract negotiation.

Also some education contracts have been brought in-house

Funding Priorities:

“More focus has been put on earlier intervention. The earlier we get to kids the more cost effective it is for the district and the better it is for their learning.”

Rather than continuing to outplace special need students in the 18-21 range, it’s more cost effective and more productive to bring services in house and keep that program here.

A major initiative across the district is the new Library Learning Commons, with the emphasis on new technology.

Over time we’re growing our budget at a slower rate than our neighboring towns.

People are frustrated with mil rate increases, but it’s not the fault of the school district budget increases. The reality is: our grand list is shrinking 17%, and real estate values have dropped.

The BoE is doing a really good job of trying to manage costs.

Closes with what benefits the schools bring to the community.

Cutting the budget any more will cut to the quick and dramatically impact the quality of our schools and our real estate values.

8:30 p.m.:  Rutishauser has made the motion to accept the budget as proposed and it has been seconded. Now discussion begins. Scott Lawrence is reviewing time restrictions (3 minutes) and whether questions can be asked; please refrain from speaking twice until everyone has spoken once.

Please limit remarks to the immediate pending question. Also outlines basic decorum rules:  there is no disparaging of any other members.

Anyone can make motions, most need to be seconded.

This body decides what happens, both with procedure and the outcome of the budget, and the ordinances.

Voting is by voice vote. If inconclusive, we can do it by standing, and if we need to we can do it by ballot. Registrars handed out yellow cards if the procedures move to that. But most voting will be voice vote.

8:35 p.m.:  Comment begins

Ross Tartell:  What distinguishes top-tier towns:   first is schools, then safety, amenities and taxes. The bonding directly relate to those things that differentiate towns that are top-tier and the rest of the pack. Decade after decade people are here for the schools.  What we’re voting on, I endorse funding those bonding questions. We have to increase the investments for the over 55 population. But the things that differentiate us from the rest of the pack are our schools.

Alex Ruskewich:  “I’d like to make a motion to reduce the Board of Education budget by $1.5 million.”

The motion has been seconded.

Now the meeting transitions to discuss solely the Board of Education budget. The process goes to “filling in the blanks,” allowing others to make motions for the amounts they’d like to reduce.

Franklin Wong:  Asks a question if increases are allowed to be suggested. However Lawrence says the charter does not allow that.

Ed Papp: I’d like to propose a reduction to the overall budget.

Lawrence explains that the charter allows only a general reduction to Education and specific line item to the Selectmen’s budget.

Changes to reducing the education budget by 1.37% which he says was what the original recommendation by the BoF. Realizing that it was 1.25, he changes it.

Ed changes that and makes a motion to reduce the education budget by 1.25%, and Lawrence says that he needs to make a motion by dollar amount. He moves to reduce the BoE budget by $1,040,000.

There are now three options:  Reduce by $1.5 million, reduce by $1,040,000 or reduce by $0.

Alex Ruskewich: Over the last decade the BoE budget has increased 3 times the cost of living. The BoE budget is 72% of the town’s operating expenses. That doesn’t include debt service for Miller-Driscoll. Enrollment is going down, spending is going up. He shows a chart that shows a $12 million increase, while we are losing 300 students. The town can’t afford to keep increases in mil rate that we’ve had in the past. The impact is on our housing prices. The prices according to Zillow, 299 houses are for sale in Wilton; their interpretation of the market is cold. You can say what you want about the school system, this is what people read.

The BoE paid for a study with District Management Council that developed recommendations that could achieve the $1.5 million if implemented. The BoE  has not chosen to implement this. Why pay for a study and not implement it? We’re asked by the BoE … {Time called}

Gail Moskow: We have been in Wilton for 47 years. Like so many other families, we moved here because of the outstanding school system. The schools have continued to be excellent. New neighbors recently moved across from us, they came with elementary school children because of the schools. The most important thing a town can do is provide an excellent education.  The biggest factor is the teachers. They make a difference in kids’ lives. I volunteered for the schools and saw the people who make .

Yes increase in taxes is worth every penny. Times change, technology, good education costs more than it used to. There is nothing more important to this community. Enrollment may be down 1-2 students in a class but that doesn’t mean we reduce teachers.

We have been privileged to live in this town. Thoughtful senior citizens paid for our children, now we are happy to pay our fair share. We urge you to support the 0.0%  reduction.

Stephen Hudspeth: Our schools are fragile systems, and if you don’t take care of them, you destroy the work of people for decades. When our neighboring towns are increasing 1.6% to 2.5%–they face the same constraints we do, property values, aging populations, … But they know that supporting the schools is important to the foundational success of our towns. The best thing we can do is to make sure our children get the best start in life.

Susan Graybill:  I support the school budget, with comments. I’ve lived in Wilton 29 years, and taught here 24 years, and continue to sub. I have comments on how the BoE arrived at the costs for our new curriculum and coaching. Decisions were made from the top down, a lack of communication and without consult from our teachers. A lack of trust and low morale has resulted among teachers–they feel a lack of your respect. 12 of 16 administrators have been hired in the last 6 years. 75% of our administrators are new to Wilton and you are still learning who we are. Wilton teachers know how to keep their students engaged and motivated. Wilton teachers learn from each other as well as paid consultants. They’ll cooperate and collaborate when you invite them to be part of the planning process. I urge you to pause, slow down the pace and cost of these new instructional changes in the classroom, like coaching, workshop. Take time to listen to the teachers on how best to use money staff and curriculum. Focus on building trust between 400 teachers and 16 administrators.

Shri [Unclear]:  My wife is a teacher, my mom was a teacher, my mother in law was a teacher. I’d like to suggest we are conflating a little reduction in the education budget destroys the system. In an $80 million budget there should be room for the reduction suggested. The budget has constantly increased, there was never a year where it reflected the crash.

Salaries were frozen. My wife as a teacher in Danbury she hasn’t had a raise for the last 3-4 years.

There are hard choices we need to make. Property taxes look like a mortgage on high-priced homes. People need to make a decision. We need to be ahead of the other towns. Next year with revaluation, the higher-end houses will take a beating. I recommend we go for the $1.5 million reduction.

Doug Bogan:  I was WHS class of 2009. I want to share what I experienced in the schools in support of that $0 reduction. In college we got an appreciation for how the schools prepared us for success in college. The access to technology was second to none. The education was on par with private school education of my peers. Our high school teachers felt like college professors. For the increase to be 0% is really impressive. So much of what goes on in the schools is building leaders. To build leaders is something that comes at a cost. I’m impressed with the work you did.

Tom Curtain:  I want to recommend some ways to make the savings in the schools. The recommendations made by the DMC study have not been taken. The town would be better served that if we’re going to spend money on the report, to take action.

The case for Universal Design for Learning has not been made. Many are decrying the need for coaches for highly intelligent teachers to implement UDL. In my opinion it’s an experiment. We have a great school system, the success has been terrific. Something that’s not broken, we’re fixing with coaches. UDL is not scientifically proven to be effective, and it’s causing angst among teachers, students and teachers. Think evolution, not revolution.

Ed Papp:  We elected the Board of Finance to manage the public purse. They are experienced financiers with backgrounds in managing resources. I was upset the BoE and BoS ignored their request to cut the budget. People move to Wilton because their jobs are nearby and because they can afford it. When I moved here taxes were 1.0% of the asset. The rate of increase in our taxes has exceed the rate of increase of the asset that support those taxes. Mathematically possible that the taxes on your home will exceed the value of the asset. That’s outrageous. We need to cut back on spending which has been too high too long. Nothing was done after 2008 to cut expenses. All of us in town are struggling, trying to keep things together. After Miller-Driscoll boondoggle, we were misled by the BoE. We need to slow down, consider citizens that want to stay in town but can’t afford it.

Bill Lalor: We moved here four years ago. We have a 4th grader and 2nd grader. We moved here for the schools. I’ve been to 3-4 of these meetings. If you want for sale signs, start attacking the schools. If not for the schools, there are a lot of other places. It’s fashionable to propose cutting the school budget but it’s not the smart way to go.

The mil rate needs to be grown.

The other thing, this came up at last year’s meeting, Wilton is down $1.4 million in grants from the state. These are grants to offset state mandates. Now that Hartford budgets are cutting–not for all, but primarily Fairfield County towns–call Hartford. They’re treating Wilton unfairly. There are other fixes.

Marianne Gustafson:  21 year resident of Wilton. The DMC report identified almost $2 million in overstaffing. The reductions of $1.5 million and $1,040,000 are not difficult if we follow the report. It’s what we need to do to make the schools more efficient. They are very reasonable. We are well over-staffed compared to like communities. I imagine this consultant group did a very deep dive.

Brian Kesselman: I support the $0 reduction. I’d like to ask if the BoE–the superintendent or chair can respond on the questions about the DMC study and special education.

Dr. Kevin Smith, superintendent:  That study was very important and yielded 6 recommendations–the first about early intervention and reading interventions. With regard to staffing, we look at it and continue to look and anticipate over time to pare back. But what the study missed is the complexity of the environment in Fairfield County. All those resources are tied to services in IEP. The recommendation to reduce staffing came from their look at national like-districts.

The complexity in way school psychologists work–working with kids, participating in planning meetings, and more. This is a report that we look at very seriously and is our hope we’ll be able to do that.

Speaking to UDL, you can find on the website objectives. UDL is a set of principles to promote further engagement in the classroom with students. The strategy is methodical, and we’re not even at a point where we’re talking in earnest with the staff. The implementation is over a number of years, the priority is to learn and explore. We need to continue the educational excellence by continuing to grow our staff. Susan Graybill was right, we need to improve our communication with our staff.

Brian Kesselman:  To those looking to declining student population as a reason to reduce costs, I have two children in the schools, and looking at what the education has provided to our kids, we’re positioned in an excellent way, mainly through this budget process–like having WiFi and the technology wrapped into the curriculum–they didn’t exist 7 years ago, 10 years ago. Our special education program has increased in its quality as well as its quantity. We have fantastic teachers, aides and administrators.

Dave Keister:  I come to these meetings and I hear how great the students are the school system is and the awards we win. The next breath I hear things are going to hell because we don’t have the next greatest gee-whiz thing. We have a good system, but we’re always trying to do something better than the people next door. I don’t know why we can’t live within our means. The way we pay is with a blank check.

Deborah McFadden:  The budget has already been cut, I support the community 18-21 program, but I am against pay to play, this is a public school system. We need to grow our mil rate. we need to update our plan of conservation and development. I support the $0 reduction. I invite residents to speak positively about our schools and towns, especially on social media, because people who are thinking about coming to our town are reading it.

Thomas Masulli:  I’m a current HS sophomore…

Lawrence cuts him off because he is not an elector.

Kim Hall:  speaking in support of the $0 reduction. People always compare to the private sector. Efficiency is there–that gets lost. We’re the third most efficient in our DRG. The third page of the DMC report says you can’t do all these recommendations at once. When you look at what they’ve done, a lot of the preventive measures to catch kids before they have IEPs. we’re going up in work to keep kids from needing interventions, and so the work require…

[Unclear] Gustafson:  Our daughters 4 years out, they will tell you the teachers have prepared them so well. We know these teachers and they’re telling us they’re not included, there are technologies, admins and programs between the teachers and students. The school system in the last several years has built an administrative class that are overriding the teachers that brought us here. Let’s talk about the teachers, and not the administrative class. I will stand up for the $1.5 million or $1.04 million reduction.

[Unclear]:  The schools have been great for my son. That said, I do support the decrease as I heard tonight there are a lot of inefficiencies in the district. We need to send a message there is not a blank check. These increases are a big strain for people who live in the town.

Jim Kineon:  That the BoE has been able to come in flat, we shouldn’t even question it. Let’s look at ways we can increase it next year. We want to keep our schools competitive in a challenging world. The only way to do that is embrace new technology, ideas…We can’t look backwards at how education was done in the past. We have to look at what our students will be competing against and the only way to do that is to plan ahead, look at what’s out there and make the investments.

Janet Nobles: I grew up here, was educated here, I have two children in the schools, and I teach in the schools.  I’ve never seen a budget come in at 0.0% They worked hard and there was a lot of compromise. There is no place to cut, and it makes a big impact on our students. And I support the 0% reduction.

David Carmichael:   The teachers are the backbone. When I hear that teachers are discouraged, when I read that Miller-Driscoll was overbuilt by 15 classroom, when I hear we should budget money out of fear of being sued. Where are the practical budgeting? We should take extra precautions for how spending is done in special education. Is there a way of determining what it costs to service those 15 extra classrooms? I’ve got to support the $1.5 million, maybe that will force introspection. How did we not know the student population would be declining?

Bruce Likly:  the 15 classroom number is not accurate; it’s more like 4-5; all the space will be utilized.

Carmichael:  Why would the Bulletin report 15 classrooms?

Likly:   I can’t say why anyone says anything wrong. There’s a tremendous amount of misinformation in the community causing angst.

Franklin Dunn:  No one is questioning how great the teachers are. That’s not the issue. But there’s an economic reality  that has to be faced. The country is going through a difficult time right now. The $1.5 million reduction, it’s really quite reasonable.

Barbara Massey Bear:  I support the $0 reduction. It has taken a tremendous amount of compromise to get to that point. I have two middle schoolers, one who is in special education and one that will probably enter it. I’ve heard about the DMC study. You may pay for a study to be done; that doesn’t mean you cut your right arm off the moment they suggest it. It needs to be integrated, it takes time.

I know for a fact that the speech services is not just consulting with professionals, reading specialists, PPTs, consulting with the math teacher. Without reading without speech my child doesn’t understand math. It’s a lot of time that’s needed, and you can’t just lose someone because it’s suggested by a study.

Corey Sabia:  I’m a senior at WHS, I am 18 years old [applause] I hope to provide my view on this whole thing. I am lucky to be able to sit in on every meeting for the last 2 years, I thank everyone on the stage for their dedication to all the students in Wilton schools. Our family’s move was decided on the schools. What it has given us to succeed in life – my sisters with special needs, one is about to graduate from college, as I’m ready to embark on it.

Joshua Kesselman:  Call the question.

Amy [Unclear]:  The kids are the biggest investment in this town. If we do right by them they’ll pay taxes and support the next generation.

If we don’t have a good product we won’t have the return on investment. Education isn’t the same as it was 10 years ago. We have STEM needs, mental health needs have increased, special needs students that are worthy of investing in too.

We don’t have a lot of amenities in town, we have the schools, and if we don’t invest in our schools we’ll have a lousy product.

Lawrence:  taking voice votes:  NO on $1.5 million cut, NO on $1.04 million. One person raised an objection and called for a standing vote. Again, more people STAND to vote NO on $1.04 million cut. Thus the budget voters will see for the Board of Education budget is the one proposed by the Board of Education.

Debate begins on the Board of Selectmen/Town Budget

Deborah McFadden supports the budget as is.

Doug Cutler:  I think we have to strike a balance, with this economy of ours, 1 in 4 business offices in town are empty. If businesses were occupied, the taxes would plug up this hole. I would have thought if we had a 0.0% increase or even a decrease, the PR value would maybe attract more businesses. It’s wonderful to have great schools, but kids are unable to get jobs. We should have a climate to encourage millennials and Gen-xers to open businesses here. If we had an announcement we were going to lower taxes to incubate businesses, then we wouldn’t have a problem. We can have wonderful education, but if there’s not the environment to start businesses and thrive then it’s silly. Going forward, maybe not this year, but subsequent years, as a landlord I have 13 tenants, and they’re all struggling.

Stephen Hudspeth:  I commend you for how you’re handling the moderator duties. The BoS budget, so much thought has gone into it, and I have appreciation for what the BoS has done. They have thought down the road, put intelligent plans together to pay off for years to come. I commend them especially first selectmen Lynne Vanderslice.

We are so blessed with our town employees, they put their hearts in what they do, they make do, we should be grateful for what they do.

Grateful that lynne promotes from within, and doesn’t fire but reduces by attrition. That is intelligent long range planning. It lets them know they have a future here.

Ray Moskow:  I’ve been coming to these meetings 47 the one group we haven’t had applause for is the group of people sitting on the stage, we only pay one.

No further comment and so the BoS budget moves forward as proposed. $33,208,876, 3.0% increase over FY’17

Bonding Resolutions

Lynne is presenting the bonding projects. Each of the projects is for bonding the costs UP to the amount proposed.

  1.  Road Restoration Program:

Comment on Bonding projects

[Unclear]  I represent the high school tennis teams, parents and boosters. The courts are dangerous, unplayable and unsightly. The courts are a focal point for the community and schools. The 2017 season has drawn the most students for tryouts. Just like Warrior pride for football and lacrosse fields, we ask the town to invest in these facilities the whole town can enjoy.

Tom Curtain:  I think it’s great to put the money in our roads, we could consider more. The case was made for the renovation of the police department. I’m thrilled there’s an acknowledgement of empty space at Comstock that should be used, I hope it would be permanent. On the tennis courts, I’ve gone back and forth with Lynne. The original request was $750,000. It morphed into $450,000.

I am a tennis nut, I play 3-4 times a week. Our courts are ugly, they’ve just been repaired, they’re not great, but you can play on them. This past Sunday I saw the WHS girls tennis team and I asked how the courts are, they said, “They’re fine.”

Courts in Weston, Ridgefield and no worse, no better. As a matter of principal, I recommend we vote no. I would rather the $450,000 support the Library, take a look at beautifying downtown.

Lynne Vanderslice:  I want to clarify:  Any moves to Comstock would be permanent. And $750,000 was when the Middlebrook courts were included in the proposal. They were removed so the price went down.

Raj Wadehra:  I’m also an avid tennis player, the depressions worry me. I play in Wilton, and my feet and ankles hurt. I played in New Canaan on post tension surface, which is what we’ve proposed, and no problem.

Asphalt is an injury waiting to happen. I’m disappointed that Middlebrook Courts were removed. The courts are one of the main amenities we have in town.

Stephen Hudspeth:  I speak in support of all of them, but especially the road repayment project. For the police department, I strongly recommend you take the tour. [He details all the problems] All these speak to a building in crisis. For a police department that is so exceptionally good, that has raised great leadership, it is sad to see their service treated in that way.

Andrea Lee:  The vote on new tennis courts is important not just to tennis players, but also to the town. One of the few places where people of widely different ages, skill, physical condition can play. Tennis is one of the only sports that increases in playing as kids get older. It adds value to the town.

Paul Lourd:  I support all the bonding projects. When we look at the projects, it’s important to keep the pencils sharpened. We need a must have and a need-to-have list. And anything we can do to not have to spend it all would be great.

Deborah McFadden:  I support all of the bonding projects. When I was campaigning people kept saying “roads and tennis courts.”

Lynne answered two different questions:  Repairing school roofs are done on a staggered schedule. And ultimately the plan is to try to get road paving back in the regular budget.

10:51 p.m.:  The conversation on bonding projects has been ended, and the meeting has moved on.

Lynne Moves on to the ordinances. The liquor service hours resolution moves forward with no objection, motion or discussion.

For the discontinuance of Old 2 Rod Highway, Ira Bloom is explaining how the town can discontinue use of a road with vote by the Town Meeting.

Comment:  [Unclear] I live in the neighborhood, and I want to clarify, this is not a road. It is a hiking path. Anyone who thinks this is part of the road maintenance, it’s not.

Frank Wong:  There are a number of properties along the road but this change is spurred by only one property owner. How does that impact those owners?

Lynne:  It doesn’t change anybody’s status. We held a public hearing and every abutter was notified and no one came to speak against.

Frank Wong:  It seems this is being done on the behest of one person.

Ira Bloom:  Actually it was done because the town wanted it done. The town lost a lawsuit trying to say it was not a road, a judge says it was. So this is another approach.

Barbara Bear:  Once this is discontinued, what does it become?

Bloom:  It’s a legal status, it takes any question of liability or expense out of the town’s responsibility. It doesn’t change the ownership, but the developer has to take the expense of developing the driveway.

Bear:  Are we going to charge rent? As a town, we’d still own it.

Bloom:  We’re not conveying ownership.

Debate has been closed.

The meeting has been adjourned.