Bd. of Ed and Finance Board Face Off for Budget Workshop

On Monday evening, Feb. 10, two of Wilton’s governing boards–Education and Finance–sat down together around a ring of tables, for their first official workshop to review the 2014-15 education budget.

Prepared by Wilton school administrators, and adopted by the Bd. of Ed at their Feb. 6 meeting, the budget was now up for examination by the town’s financial board. Most glaringly, the BoE was presenting a budget of $79.6 million, reflecting a 4.52 percent increase over last year’s budget; the BoF, however, had given a ‘suggested’ guideline for increases to be capped at 1.75 percent.

There was some thoughtful back-and-forth regarding the significant gap between the number asked for by the BoF and delivered by the BoE.

It was the newest member of the BoF, Richard Creeth, who, while he self-deprecatingly said he felt “ill-qualified to ask detailed questions,” asked perhaps one of the most critical ones.

“This question concerns me deeply, the BoF came out with the 1.75 percent guideline, and we’re presented with 4.52 percent budget. There are extenuating circumstances this year, so I was anxious to see the 3-year projections. I’m disappointed to see that the 3-year projections show continuing 4 percent increases or more. My concern is, we know inflation is less than 2 percent, we know most people’s incomes are going up less than 2 percent, so an increase in the school budget by 4 or 5 percent is not sustainable. One year maybe we can live with, but I look at years two and three, and I see that again, we’ve got more than 4 percent increases. Any well-run corporation has a 5-year plan. What are the plans for dealing with this trend in the long-term, more than a year or two out. Clearly it’s unsustainable. Or else we’ll simply change Wilton, and the only people who can to afford to live here will be the people who can afford Westchester-style property taxes. This concerns me greatly.”

He also later added, “It’s never one particular budget that kills you, it’s the cumulative, compounding effect of the budget growing more than a sustainable trend.”

Bruce Likly, the chair of the BoE, acknowledged his own similar frustrations with trying to get a budget to fit the needs of the town as well as meet the continuing growing costs associated with federal and state educational mandates.

“I see a tremendous amount being pushed down on us from Hartford, that we can’t control. The reality is in Wilton they’re unfunded. When Hartford says, ‘You will have a teacher evaluation program,’ that takes us hundreds and hundreds of man hours to implement, there’s a real cost associated with that, yet there’s no dollars coming back. We’re trying to keep our employment costs as close to those levels, but we can’t fight those other pieces. Eventually our ability to move gets taken away.”

Creeth acknowledged the unfunded mandates but countered that, “80 percent of the budget is labor related. I can’t quantify the costs of the mandates without knowing how much of that extra labor is driven by unfunded mandates?”

Likly pointed out that last year they did try to quantify it, just by looking at the number of PPTs done by the district, noting that each PPT costs roughly “$1,700-$1,800 each.” “Last year we had 1,801 PPTs, so we’re talking millions of dollars just as one example. We need to do a better job looking at those hours. We’re trying to absorb it, but at an opportunity cost. The other one is healthcare costs, they’re rising dramatically higher than 2 percent. There’s no way to adjust for that, except trying to get more blood from the stone.”

Likly added that the BoE wasn’t unaware of the long term need to try and decrease costs, and that they ask themselves the same questions being posed by the BoF. “We asked ourselves, if we had the same number of students this year as we did last year, why can’t we be at a zero increase budget?”

Creeth responded by asking why the board couldn’t keep employee  headcount at zero if enrollment didn’t increase.

Likly pointed to special services as the main driver of employment increases, with the desire to bring more services in-district. By hiring more personnel in Special Education areas, other high cost services the district has previously spent on outplacement might be brought more in balance.

BoF chair Warren Serenbetz posed a just as tough a question: “Who is responsible for thinking outside the box for getting these costs under control?”

Likly countered that the district has made significant headway already at trying to do so–pooling costs with other districts, as an example. Again he cited complications with Hartford. “This board is getting pretty tired of what Hartford is doing to use, because it’s making it hard to react to what the town wants–they want the best education possible, but we also know that there’s a portion of the town that is having trouble handling that [financially]. But then there is also a portion of the town that says, ‘Bring it on, we’ll spend anything that you ask us to spend.’ I think the reality is somewhere in between.”

Serenbetz complimented the BoE and administrators, given what they faced. “You did a great job, it obviously shows a lot of thought. But the issue we have is, 4 percent one year is ok, but 4 percent, 4 percent, 4 percent, 4 percent, you run out of ability to afford. Everyone thinks Wilton is a very wealthy community and a lot of Wilton is. But 60 percent of the people in Wilton have AGIs under $200,000 and 40 percent have AGIs $100,000. If you take the tax burden of an average home, for someone making under $100,000, the percentage of total cost, it’s a very big number, particularly for some populations on fixed income. It’s the hat we have to wear as we do our balancing act.”

Likly made one final comment on behalf of BoE member Chris Stroup who wasn’t at the meeting, noting that Stroup voted against the 4.52 percent increase because he thought it was too low. “He asked, ‘What would happen if we spent more, what return on investment would we get? For so many years we’ve been lean and we’ve cut, what could we get if we spent more.’ I think it’s a fair question. It came down to that our teachers don’t get time to collaborate, they need more professional development, and we see an opportunity to leverage technology. We want you to know we’re trying to figure out, we’re trying to raise our game, we understand where the town is at. If you feel you need to gut us, it’s going to hurt.”

Specific Budget Questions

Chief among the specific budget items that drew the toughest questions from the finance officials were athletic costs, technology upgrades and security personnel additions.

Athletic Department

BoF member James Meinhold was the first to criticize the high numbers turned in by the district for sports. “It strikes me that the athletic budget increase of 14 percent is close to being out of control. In terms of where the school system, what’s their priorities, and I understand the reasons for having sports–my daughter participated in sports through high school–but a 14 percent increase just strikes me as being out of control.”

Jeffrey Rutishauser echoed his finance board colleague’s opinion: “I know this town loves sports but when you’re really scraping together education dollars, having 14 percent that’s non educational–and I have kids who participated in the sports program, so I’m a big booster of that. It just seems that’s a little bit much. The increases are spread over a bunch of different sports, some are going up 30 percent year-to-year and it seems like a lot.”

Wilton High School principal Robert O’Donnell explained that based on student interest the school was hoping to add a girls’ golf team; there already is an existing boys golf team. “We have a coach who was willing to donate his time this year, and we’ve got free greens time for this year. Next year we’d be adding a coach and transportation. That’s something we feel we should be doing for our female athletes.”

In addition, O’Donnell said other coaches are being requested, including a boys’ swimming coach and a boys’ JV baseball coach. There are also equipment needs he outlined. “We need a new ice machine, we’ve got one that keeps failing, we keep repairing it, but it’s not adequate for the size of our program. We need a good medical cart, to transport injured student athletes. Those are some of the bigger items.” The finance officials also asked questions about the growth of the girls’ hockey program, which because of increased participation, would bring additional transportation and officials costs.

Rutishauser noted that cost increases for girls teams went up 16 percent, while costs for boys athletics increased by only 4 percent, and wondered if that was due to parity concerns or Title IX. Athletic director Chris McDougal said he was making an effort to balance costs more equally between girls and boys, while O’Donnell noted that, “We also have some really strong female athletic programs that play late into the season. They have had more post-season experiences, they’re strong programs, generally speaking.”

Notably, participation fees have been included in the budget again for a second year.

Security

Two new personnel positions were added to the education budget, based on recommendation of the Wilton Security Task Force–an additional School Resource Officer (SRO) and a psychologist whose title would be “threat assessment coordinator,” and who would act to help the school community identify individuals who pose any kind of threat to themselves or to others.

Chair of the BoF Warren Serrenbetz commented that the funding for the SRO, “should be in the selectmen’s budget because it’s a police officer,” adding that “we’ll figure it out,” presumably by the time the final budget is presented to the town at the town vote in May.

In an interview following the budget workshop Serrenbetz commented that, “It is a new concept, and I agree, it does go beyond threat assessment. There’s a lot of things that an extra body can help with that maybe the current sets of bodies are struggling with. Bullying, the outcomes of bullying. I’ve been in the loop on the Wilton Security Task Force, I went on a [facilities] tour, I’ve heard the recommendations. The thing I told them, we need to be smart about what we need to do. The people that they’re recommending, if you look at how the SRO currently working at the high school is received by the kids, it’s hard to argue that it’s not a good idea for Middlebrook as well. And with the threat assessment coordinator being more than that, personally I’m disposed that it might be a good idea.”

Technology

James Meinhold was one BoF member who had several questions about technology expenditures, including for new iPads and iPad carts, as well as Chromebooks.

The district’s director of technology Mathew Hepfer explained that there’s both a growing reliance on new technology in daily classroom use as well as a need to train students in technology-based test taking, given the implementation of the Common Core curriculum. For this new approach adopted across CT schools, standardized testing is now done on computers.

That’s the case even at Miller-Driscoll where Hepfer explained, “They have one computer lab for 900 students, so students only get a half-hour every other week. If you see the way testing is changing, kids need to have a comfort level with technology, so we’re trying to start the process much younger.”

The schools are also looking at ways to upgrade the technology to better suit students who have their own devices and simultaneously to make that experience universal with the same desktop and software. While the objective is eventually to slow down the need to replace every PC, the schools aren’t quite there yet; they are trying to lay that groundwork though, and the budget reflects that.

In addition, some of the new technology investments, including Chromebooks, reflects an increased reliance on collaborative learning the students do in the classroom. “One thing they struggle with is not having enough devices. Add to that the computer-based standardized testing–they’ll lose three computer labs for almost two months. It will be difficult for them to deliver the rigorous computer-based instruction they’ve already developed without more devices,” Hepfer explained.

Middlebrook principal Maria Coleman echoed that. “We are finding that with wireless, the teachers are using the technology so much more. They are able to get students working collaboratively and interactively, and that requires technology. It’s quite limited when you have one cart for 1,058 students. An additional Chromebook cart would allow us to work with an additional classroom or two.”

Common Core

There was a general question from BoF member Rutishauser about whether the change to Common Core education standards had other implications on the budget in addition to technology. Assistant superintendent Dr. Chuck Smith said that there were, but that administrators tried to minimize the impact on the overall increase. “It has an impact on the budget, most importantly on professional development, some curriculum work to align it to the Common Core, there’s training for administrators. But it will be over the course of a number of years.”

 

The next step in the budget process is for the Board of Finance to hold a public hearing on the education budget on Monday, March 24 at the Middlebrook auditorium at 7:30 p.m.

As always, the Board of Finance encourages residents to offer feedback and opinions via their email address, boardoffinance@wiltonct.org. Messages sent to this email are distributed to all members of the BoF.