The following is “Notes from the Board Table,” the regular update from Bruce Likly, chairman of the Wilton Board of Education.
I could not be more proud of the 2017-18 operating budget that Superintendent Kevin Smith presented to the Board of Education last Thursday evening. The budget presented was the product of a collaborative effort between school officials, Board of Education members, and members of the Boards of Finance and Selectmen. Work began on this effort last June, and it represents a spending plan that addresses the town’s finances and continues to move Wilton schools forward with innovative new courses and investments in 21st Century teaching tools.
I encourage you to make time to familiarize yourself with what has been proposed. Dr. Smith’s budget calls for a $0.00 (ZERO) spending increase over current levels.
Here is a brief overview of recent events:
- Early spring 2016: The State legislature notifies towns across the state of a recommendation to dramatically reduce Education Cost Sharing (ECS) funding. Wilton received $1.51 million the previous year.
- May 2016: Wilton voters approve the town’s 2016-17 operating budget, incorporating a 0.77-percent spending increase for its schools (a number significantly lower than surrounding towns) with the expectation the ECS funding would come in around $1.2M. The vote followed several public meetings and hearings where residents turned out and spoke passionately about the need to invest in our schools.
- Late spring 2016: Wilton is ultimately allotted $665,382 for the coming year. The legislature’s action is a wakeup call that Wilton cannot count on Hartford funding, as legislators continue to grapple with worsening budget deficits.
- Summer 2016: 2017-18 Board of Education budget development begins.
- August 2016: Board of Finance passes guidance calling for a 1.25-percent reduction in school spending in the 2017-18 budget.
- December 2016: State officials strike again. This time, Wilton is told its ECS funding will be cut an additional $201,560. Although the Town found a way to absorb this cut, it is a further reminder of the unreliability of State funding.
Under this precarious scenario, Dr. Smith and the budget development team expanded their efforts and swiftly incorporated the following guiding principles:
- There would be no sacred cows: Everything–everything–was on the table. This included class size, staffing – including the number of administrators in each school, the Middlebrook “team” and Cider Mill “neighborhood” structures, co-curriculars, athletics, technology, bus routes, school start times and even the possibility of reducing the number of buildings we use.
- Every penny must be spent to support the district’s strategic plan and objectives.
The entire budget as well as the District’s strategic plan and objectives are available for your review on the Wilton Public Schools district website. There are exciting enhancements across the District next year, even with our budget realities, including several new courses, significant redeployments of existing technology resources and investments in 1:1 digital learning environments at Cider Mill and Middlebrook. I hope you take the time to review the documents to see where we are headed!
In the meantime, I draw your attention to a few final points:
Enrollment decline: There has been much discussion in the community about the enrollment decline experienced by schools nationwide, including here in Wilton. Over the past three years we have seen an enrollment decline of just over 5-percent. Critical to note, where enrollment decline permitted, we have reduced grade level sections (primarily at M-D and CM) but for the most part the decline has been spread across all grade levels, making class section/staffing reductions unrealistic.
Staffing reductions: Over this same, three-year period the Board of Education has reduced staffing by 4.16-percent with certified staffing (staff requiring teaching certificates) being reduced by 1.75-percent and non-certified staff (all others) being reduced by 10.7-percent. There is a small, yet vocal, subset of our community which continually charges that staffing levels have become bloated, despite declining enrollment. These charges are just not true. I should also note the way we deploy our certified staff has changed. We no longer “just” hire classroom teachers. Instead, certified staff is found in a number of capacities that didn’t exist a few years ago: interventionists, curriculum coaches and coordinators, for example.
Labor costs: But as staffing and enrollment have decreased, labor costs continue to increase. This year our new teacher contract with its modest increases calls for roughly $1 million in increased teacher salary spending when applied across the District. Investing in our teachers is essential, as Wilton must remain a preferred destination for top teachers.
Fixed costs: “Other” costs continue to increase as well, despite our continued efforts to find efficiencies. This includes professional services, contractual costs, transportation and supplies. That said, I should point to energy costs, which have decreased, largely because of our transition to natural gas and ongoing conservation efforts.
Special Education: You may recall that two years ago, the District commissioned the District Management Council to assess special education practices, and provide a report on strengths and weaknesses. The report offered many excellent ideas for improving efficiency, and now we are starting to see the benefits. Next year, for example, we expect to have fewer than 30 students outplaced, compared with 35 students included in this year’s budget. Students are outplaced–or educated outside of the Wilton schools–when a determination is made that our internal resources cannot adequately meet a student’s needs. We have taken steps to improve our internal capabilities so that more of our students can remain in our schools, which is preferable both for students and their families, and for the Wilton community.
At this point, the budget proposal is referred to as “the Superintendent’s budget,” as the Board of Education has yet to formally adopt the proposal. The budget will be the subject of Board of Education workshops and hearings in coming weeks, and I hope all community members will keep informed. A good place to start is by attending our next regular Board meeting, which is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 26 at 7 p.m. in the Cider Mill Media Center (note location change).