The Board of Education met last night with Wilton Public Schools superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith to review the FY’21 budget he’d presented to the public just one week before. Smith’s proposed budget of $83,989,144 represents a $2,112,581 or 2.58% increase over current year spending.

[Editor’s note:  At various points, Smith and the BOE members also referred to the increase as a 1.99% bump. The difference is how the school officials consider funding for the Genesis alternative school program. Because Genesis was funded by the Bd. of Finance in FY’20 through an appropriation from the charter authority, it’s not included as part of the current year’s budget. Smith says if it were part of this year’s budget, then the comparison to the proposed FY’21 budget would only be a 1.99% increase. Without the Genesis cost in this year’s budget, the year-over-year increase is 2.58%.]

For the most part, the board members seemed highly approving of the budget Smith and his administrative team put together. In fact, some of the words they used to describe it were, “remarkable,” “tremendous,” “a good story,” and “a lot of good news.”

One of the things they were most complimentary about was how much they felt the budget incorporated in relation to the percentage increase–for example, that it covers the cost of the new Genesis alternative school program.

“A 1.99% increase, taking into account Genesis, is remarkable,” BOE member Glenn Hemmerle said. “Year after year after year, for four- to five years our budget increases have been minimal. To do that in light of 3% wage increases I think is a remarkable accomplishment.”

BOE chair Deb Low agreed, and praised the benefit Genesis provides to the bottom line as well as for what it brings to the students who attend.

“Contracted services are greatly reduced and our out-of-district placement costs are projected to be much less. That we have a Genesis program keeping our students here and serving them well, I think is a remarkable story, again to come within a budget of 2.58%,” said Low.

She added that she didn’t expect such strong results and impact within just the first year of Genesis launching.

One area of increase that Smith said was more complex than at first glance were in salary. As he explained, salary increases may actually be linked to savings and improved student outcomes elsewhere.

“We make choices. Looking at salaries is a good one–we made changes in other places to respond to that,” he started, referring to the investment in staffing in special education and Genesis. “Ultimately what that’s going to mean is keeping dollars from flowing out of the community through outplacements, and keeping them in the community and in fact serving kids, because we’ll have more kids staying in the mainstream setting. We’ve reset the equilibrium there.”

Hemmerle was impressed that the budget was able to meet the needs of what assistant superintendent for special services Andrea Leonardi has planned for.

“The numbers, especially in special needs, should be alarming. Alarms should be going off. The increase in students with needs is alarming over the years. The statewide numbers are raising a flag as are our numbers. Andrea, your team has done a remarkable job. I can’t do anything but support what you ask for,” he said, adding, “I think 1.9% increase, in light of everything, is a remarkable accomplishment.”

Board members were also supportive of how the budget accounted for maintaining class sizes and the district’s commitment to professional development.

“Keeping our commitment to professional development–like class size, we always invest in our staff. To keep that moving forward, within a very reasonable dollar amount, is tremendous,” Low said.

The budget also includes major capital improvements to Middlebrook School.

“At 1.9% without Genesis, and at 2.58% with it, there’s a lot of good news in this budget. The fact that it can take on a huge Phase One of a renovation needed at Middlebrook, there’s great news that a budget at this percentage can include such a hefty project,” she said.

Smith said he made the effort to be responsible with spending on school facilities.

“We have facilities needs that we must address. We’re doing it prudently, and we’ve begun a process, from Miller-Driscoll, to Cider Mill [improvements] last year. We’re focusing on Middlebrook next year, and then looking at the high school. In 3-5 years we’ll have up to date facilities. To me, that’s responsible, and manages the expectations in the broader community about keeping spending restrained.”

Hemmerle asked Smith if the budget he proposed is enough.

“I have no problems with the budget. I wonder, we have a very aggressive and optimistic vision for the system, for what our graduates should look like. Does this budget, as you’ve presented it, move us where we need to be? Are there things you’d like, or you think you’d need, that are not here?”

He wondered if it kept us competitive with other districts in Wilton’s District Reference Group (DRG). “We know we trail in some cases, and I want to make sure we are doing all that is necessary to get us to the number one system in the DRG? That’s where we should be. Does this do it? Is it adequate to get us there? Does it meet our needs?”

Smith was measured in his response.

“This budget will move us forward. This is what we believe to be the right budget to allow us to take steps forward. As part of that process, we make choices, recognizing all of the many variables that contribute to decisions around the budget, in addition to managing our own pace of growth. I also feel very strongly that we have committed to really good strategies for improvement. We need to also give ourselves time to let those strategies work,” he said.

He also said that increasing it for the sake of “more” wasn’t optimal, and that growth would take time.

“My review of our achievement data, if we just take math for example, everybody would agree we’re not where we can be or should be. But in terms of the trends we’re seeing, those trends are good,” he said–however, “”I don’t know that throwing more money at that in a year will really accelerate our growth. We’re looking at longer-term improvement with incremental change over time. I do think this budget gets us there.”

Smith pointed out areas in the budget where there were “outsized increases” in the budget year-to-year:  digital resources, technology, and the addition of LLC staff members at the elementary schools.

Low and fellow BOE member Ruth DeLuca questioned whether some areas were being kept flat at peril to the district–specifically in the area of supplies, which didn’t have an increase and hasn’t for several years.

“If you survey principals today, they’ll tell you that of course they could always use more in supplies,” Smith said, adding, “We’re trying to exercise internal discipline.”

Low compared the supplies line item to the big increase for digital learning–despite there being no big initiative in that area to account for a big jump.

“I’m not sure why it needs to be such a big increase this year if it seems like steady as she goes goals … compared to the supply budget staying flat. Is that a place we have looked back for budget reductions in years past, and everyone has gotten used to bare bones?” asked Low.

Smith said he would provide more information on the jump in funding for the district’s digital spending at the next meeting on Feb. 6, breaking out what’s new and where it’s allocated, to “tell the story a bit better.”

Hemmerle pointed out that this year’s budget does not reflect any new initiatives–something he said was a positive.

“We have slowed in this budget, putting in new initiatives, new programs, new challenges for the teachers. Are we overwhelming them with all these changes–coaches, instructional leaders, one thing after another. They feel under pressure. This budget doesn’t really have any of that. It will give us breathing room to continue to develop without putting another new initiative on top of it,” he said.

Yearly Question:  If Enrollment Falls, Why Doesn’t Staffing Drop Too?

The BOE members and administrators talked about how to explain the topic of enrollment and staffing to both the public and Board of Finance members–with whom they’ll meet next week to discuss the school budget.

Every year, they face the same question:  if enrollment numbers are dropping, why doesn’t staffing decline at an equal pace?

This, said Low, “will be a challenge to explain.”

Smith laid out the explanation.

  1. The district’s enrollment has been in decline for several years, he said. While the district has “contracted” in classroom staff and “consolidated” central office positions as a result, Smith said the district has also reinvested in positions that aren’t enrollment sensitive–in areas such as the Library Learning Commons, special education and elsewhere. Those hires, he said, are strategic and support the district’s priorities.
  2. Looking forward over the next seven years, Smith said there continue to be a projected decline, at just under 10%. However, “it’s important to know where those declines are.”
    • Miller-Driscoll is stable over the next five years. He’s taking a wait-and-see approach for a projected increase next year for kindergarten; whether they have another staff member depends if that increase materializes. Any declines at M-D in the next year or two are “not significant numbers, it’s not where you’d adjust staffing per se.”
    • At Cider Mill, there is a significant decline next year (-54 students); as a result classroom staff has been reduced. However, it will eventually trend upward and be relatively stable over the next five years.
    • It’s a “very different story at Middlebrook and Wilton High School.”
    • At Middlebrook, looking out seven years, it’s a net decline of -100 students–about 70 in just the next couple years. Smith acknowledged a need to look at staffing models there, and how to adjust staffing relative to enrollment.
    • At WHS the decline will be even more substantial projecting out seven years:  there will be a net reduction of -235 students. “There too as we’re planning the next couple years, we’ll have to look at staffing.”

Smith said his staff will dig deeper into analyzing the numbers and coming up with proposals for how to handle it, but added that, “We’ll absolutely respond to the changing demographics and enrollment.”

He explained that even thought there’s been declining enrollment over the last decade, in that same time teaching has changed so that staffing for enrollment is not so simple.

“Part of it is we’ve changed our model of delivery and it’s been staff intensive. We want to see those results, we’re beginning to in special ed, digital literacy is a whole new field that didn’t exist in the 80s. our delivery models and areas of service have changed, and they don’t come in sections like kindergartens or first grades,” he said.

Low said it’s easier to understand staffing to enrollment when discussing class sizes. “We have a pretty good track record of reasonable class sizes. There not small, and they’re not overly large. They’ve served us well.”

What’s harder to understand is that staffing in support services, where services have to be delivered 1-on-1, staffing is explained less in class size than it is in numbers of service hours. This is true for positions like social workers, counselors and interventionists.

Another staffing area that’s hard for the public to understand, is global ratios. For example, at a certain point, enrollment will decline enough where a school will need one fewer counselor–but not if it brings the ratio up too high (e.g. a student-to-counselor ration of 200:1 would be considered too high for the high school). Or in the case of a librarian–how many fewer kids should there be before a school can eliminate another librarian.

Smith noted that even if a position isn’t classroom facing, that doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary to keep.

“That term we have to define is ‘non-classroom facing,’ because it seems to imply ‘less important,’ and in the educational world delivery of services is not as clearcut,” he said.