Last month the superintendent of Wilton Public Schools, Dr. Kevin Smith, proposed his budget for FY2021, set at $83,989,144, which represents a $2,112,581 or 2.58% increase over current year spending.

Last night, the Board of Education approved that budget unanimously, and formally accepted Smith’s budget as its own. In doing so, BOE chair Deborah Low defended it as a budget that “balances student educational needs with fiscal responsibility for taxpayers.”

However she also warned of “difficult choices” that could happen if the Board of Finance or residents made any cuts to the proposed budget. She listed examples ranging from cutting supplies and equipment at best, to increasing class sizes and cutting programs at worst.

Low made the argument that the last five years of school budget increases have been very conservative–and that maintaining similarly low levels of funding for FY2021 would be detrimental to progress in the school district.

2015-2016 increase:  1.98%
2016-2017 increase:  0.77%
2017-2018 increase:  0.0%
2018-2019 increase:  1.62%.
2019-2020 (current) increase:  0.0%

In fact, she said, the FY2021 BOE budget proposal is just as lean–if you look at it as if the cost for the Genesis alternative school program had been funded by the district rather than the BOF last year. “Thank goodness the BOF decided to take $468,000 from the town charter [authority], which–had it been in our budget–would have made the budget increase for our current budget [1.99%],” she said, rather than 2.58%.

Low:  Here’s What the Budget Does

Low described how the budget as proposed benefits both students as well as taxpayers, and she made her argument for why the BOE feels it needs to fund the schools the way it proposes for FY2021.

“The budget supports our standards for excellence in education and aligns with our mission and goals. The budget moves us forward at a reasonable pace towards achieving our vision for all graduates. The budget supports best practices for education in the 21st century and reflects our understanding that education differs significantly from the 1980s and 1990s.

Low spelled out specific areas that the budget will help in distinguishing the Wilton School District:

  • enables us to maintain reasonable class sizes
  • ensures highly-skilled teachers by attracting and retaining the most talented candidates and then significantly investing in their training
  • supports a powerful, award-winning digital learning environment through the grades, and the required hardware and software and security to go with it
  • provides in-district special education services, pre-K to age 21, most notably this year with the addition of the Genesis program.
  • continues programming and training to ensure healthy and safe social/emotional environments at all school levels.
  • continues math course sequence revisions at Middlebrook
  • updates and adds Wilton High School courses in world language, media, social studies and math
  • begins significant, long-needed renovations at Middlebrook.

The BOE will formally present the proposed budget to the Board of Finance on March 6. The BOF will then present the proposed BOE budget (along with the proposed Town Budget put together by the first selectwoman) at a public hearing on March 30. Based on public feedback the BOF will decide whether or not to make any cuts to the proposed budgets that they’ll take to the Town Meeting on May 5 for residents to consider.

It was those potential cuts that Low then addressed, warning about what any budget reductions would do to the quality and progress of Wilton Schools.

Low:  Here’s the Damage Cuts to the Budget Will Cause

According to Low, if the budget is reduced from the $84 million the BOE is proposing, “our choices become difficult at that point.” She painted a picture of the possible scenarios for what would have to get eliminated, moving from what she called “minor to more major”:

  • First the team would “start nickel and dime-ing”–for example, by making further cuts in materials and supplies and equipment. “But we heard during budget workshops concern from our principals that they had seen the results of those types of budget reduced in the last few years. We are at basic levels already,” Low said
  • “Reductions will slow our progress. For example, teacher training in literacy and/or math and/or special education practices and/or assessments will be delayed. Or digital learning resources will be curtailed. Or school climate and social/emotional training and initiatives will just have to wait.
  • “Reductions end up kicking the can down the road. So we could put off or draw out the much-needed facilities work at Middlebrook, which will only increase expenses and delay addressing the high school needs, also on our table.
  • “We could look at postponing new programs, as almost happened with the Genesis program this year.
  • “We could walk back our newer programs. We just added digital learning specialists to our Learning Centers at Miller-Driscoll and Cider Mill; maybe we would undo that. We recently added some math time at Middlebrook for special topics that we couldn’t get to; do we undo that?
  • “We make special ed wait. We have traded in our budget four paraprofessionals for certified teachers. Do we hold off more expert instruction to save on the salary differential?
  • “If reductions are extreme or draconian, then the worst happens by threatening staff levels, and we get into things we don’t like to talk about at all–anywhere from increasing class sizes to reducing co-curricular and other elective programs.”

Low made a plea for public involvement and support from now until the Annual Town Meeting. “I urge everyone to please make your views know to the BOF. Attend the public hearing in March and/or email them or us and encourage your friends to do the same. Because we’re in this together,” she added.