Wilton’s Board of Finance (BOF) convened a special meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 17 for the sole purpose of discussing the preliminary budget numbers for the 2023-2034 Board of Education budget, which Wilton Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith outlined to the BOE just a few days earlier.
The work-in-progress FY’24 BOE budget would call for $91,869,768 — a 5.99% increase ($5,191,906) over the district’s FY’23 budget and the largest year-over-year budget increase Smith has ever proposed.
“Thinking about this total budget proposal, when I presented to the [BOE], the word I used was ‘initial” as opposed to ‘recommended’,” Smith told the BOF. (Indeed, the budget posted on the BOE website is aptly labeled “First Run.”)
The BOF invited Smith and BOE Chair Ruth DeLuca to appear at the special meeting as part of an ongoing dialogue about the looming budget challenges, while the BOE will begin scrutinizing and refining the numbers in a series of upcoming workshops.
Smith said he is “hopeful” the BOE will find ways to bring the overall budget down.
BOF Digs Into Details
“It should be no surprise to anyone that the salary account lines are the largest driver of the budget,” Smith said.
Salaries (64%) and benefits (15%) make up nearly 80% of the total operating budget and, combined, would raise the budget by $4 million due to contractual increases.
Smith revealed that the cost of health insurance is one area he hopes to reduce after soliciting bids for a new insurance carrier.
BOF Vice Chair Stewart Koenigsberg pressed Smith on the district’s headcount, to understand increased labor costs at a time of decreased enrollment. (Multiple documents about staff count and enrollment were posted on the Town website.)
Smith explained that the budget included a net increase of 1.2 FTE (full-time equivalents) which reflected a decrease in staff in some areas; an increase in staff whose salaries were no longer covered by grants; and an increase in staff at Cider Mill, where enrollment is expected to rise.
He added that the district has applied for a grant that might fund up to three current positions, though the outcome of that application is not yet known or guaranteed.
Board member Rich Santosky asked questions about the number of special education students and related costs.
In response, Smith cited a higher prevalence of students qualifying for special education services, along with a rise in students with more serious mental health needs, including those requiring outplacements.
An Even Higher Budget Scenario?
Smith revealed he had seen an earlier budget scenario with an even higher increase than the 5.99% he ultimately presented to the BOE. He alluded to “a series of reductions” that had been made from a roughly 10% budget increase down to 5.99%.
“These were choices that made sense to me, there are things I think we can defer or live without but… it just becomes challenging for us as we’re working through this,” Smith said. “While the budget continues to support our needs, it does fall short in creating opportunities for us to continue to invest deeply and grow in those areas where we need to continue to grow and invest and change.”
Board member Chris Stroup challenged Smith on those reductions.
“Is it your view that those reductions will have no adverse impact on the education of our children?” Stroup asked.
“We’re managing it and continue to manage it, but I do worry about quality and degradation over time if these patterns continue,” Smith responded, citing examples of programs or personnel that have been deferred for multiple years.
As the conversation continued onto the topic of classroom sizes, Stroup questioned Smith on whether Wilton’s classroom sizes were “optimal.”
Smith responded emphatically that Wilton should not consider increasing class sizes, and said if he “had a magic wand” he might decrease class sizes, but that overall Wilton’s current model is working successfully.
Board members also discussed utilities, bus transportation, sports participation fees, building repairs and other details of the budget.
The Question of Affordability
Board member Matt Raimondi reported that First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice had shared information suggesting a 5.99% BOE budget increase (along with other preliminary Town budget numbers) would result in a 5-6% mill rate increase for FY’24.
“I’ve been putting together budgets in this town for a long time now,” Smith said. “That’s a high increase for this town. I’m well aware of the impact on the mill rate… it’s a question of affordability.”
BOF Chair Michael Kaelin asked Smith to appear at the next BOF meeting on Feb. 9 prepared to share specific examples of what would be “lost” if his total budget ask were reduced.
“If we’re going to tell the taxpayers, or recommend to the taxpayers, that they’re going to have a large [tax] increase, we’re going to have to convince them it’s unavoidable and it’s worth it,” Kaelin said. “The only way I can see doing that is if we can clearly communicate to them what they’d lose if we don’t pay those taxes.”
Kaelin thanked Smith for attending the meeting to present, adding that Smith has been “more than accommodating” and responsive to the BOF’s requests and questions.
Upcoming BOE Budget Dates and Deadlines
Following budget workshops scheduled for Jan. 24-26, the BOE will follow the schedule below. Specific meeting times and additional information are available on the Board of Education website.
Thursday, Feb. 2: BOE begins budget deliberations
Thursday, Feb. 9: Joint meeting with Board of Finance
Wednesday, Feb. 15: Deadline for BOF to set dates for Public Hearings on BOE and BOS budgets
Thursday, Feb. 16: BOE meeting to approve budget
Tuesday, Feb. 21: BOF regular meeting
Friday, March 3: Deadline for BOE and BOS to submit budgets to BOF (in advance of May 2 Annual Town Meeting)
Monday, March 27: BOF Public Hearing for the BOE proposed school budget
Tuesday, March 28: BOF Public Hearing for the BOS proposed town budget
Tuesday, April 11: Deadline for BOF to recommend a budget to bring to the Annual Town Meeting
Tuesday, May 2: Annual Town Meeting
Saturday, May 6: Adjourned Town Vote
I have to say this sounds surprisingly reasonable / conciliatory on the part of the BoF.
That being said, I’d very much like to hear what was cut from that 10% budget too. Partly to know if there’s anything parents should be pushing to add back, but also – even more importantly – because if the 6% budget represents a compromise then it should be presented to voters that way, rather than as an initial offer to try to whittle down further.
During the meeting, Dr. Smith gave three examples of reductions in the interest of keeping the overall increase at 5.99% instead of 10%. (Just to be clear for all readers, these are not cuts in the current budget – Dr. Smith was discussing ways to reduce the size of the budget increase.)
1.) professional learning
2.) additional administrative support at Wilton High School
3.) social and emotional learning professional support that Kim Zemo has requested
He went into some detail on the WHS administrative support. Here’s the quote. “[Regarding] the work of the high school administrators, we’ve seen it across the country, an increase in the number of student issues. So they spend a lot of their time now dealing with [things] they really didn’t have to deal with pre-covid. It’s time — they’re not able to provide the kind of time supporting teachers and supporting departments that they had 5 years ago because now their time is being consumed in other ways. It’s a similar story in special ed because we have an increase in rates of referrals, an increase in required testing, so proportionately more time of our staff is being spent doing that than some of their other activities, providing more direct support to kids, interacting with parents, [etc].”
Interesting, thanks. I’d also be curious about the impact of rolling back the potential Middlebrook block schedule change – I know a lot of parents and teachers are very unhappy about that.
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