BOE Chair: Don’t Forget There’s a School Budget to Learn About
The following is “Notes from the Board Table,” the regular update from Christine Finkelstein, chairman of the Wilton Board of Education.
Next week, the Wilton Board of Education will vote on Superintendent Kevin Smith’s proposed operating budget for the 2019-2020 school year. That vote, scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 21, will mark the culmination of several weeks of careful deliberation by our board and the administration.
The budget calls for a 1.35% increase in spending, which falls below the 1.6% guidance recommended by the Board of Finance. The spending plan fully funds all educational priorities, and continues our commitment to academic excellence and innovation.
As we prepare to take this vote, it seems this year’s budget process has progressed with hardly any notice from the public. With few exceptions, we really haven’t heard from members of the community. While it’d be nice to interpret this lack of communication as the community’s unspoken approval, instead I think it’s a reflection of residents’ legitimate concern over legislative threats coming from Hartford.
Specifically, I’m referring to legislation that would force consolidation of school districts, purportedly as a way to reduce costs. In its current form, the legislation would force a merger of the Wilton and Norwalk public schools. Our board has been very clear in expressing our opposition to this awful idea, which would effectively dismantle our high-functioning school district, reduce opportunities for all students, destroy local school governance, and achieve no discernible savings.
Wilton residents have taken a leading role in fighting this real threat, and we are grateful. But as that debate continues to rage, we must also be mindful of next year’s budget, and the priorities and decisions reflected in the spending plan. A few key points include:
New Courses at Wilton High School
Earlier this year, the Board of Education approved four new courses which are funded in the budget proposal. These courses include:
- Data Structures and Algorithms–An advanced course available for students who successfully complete AP Computer Science, and wish to pursue computer programming. This course will provide a rigorous study of data structures, analysis of algorithms, and the application of logic to solve problems.
- United States History–This course is part of the implementation of the new Wilton Public Schools social studies sequence. Whereas in the previous sequence U.S. History was offered to sophomores, this new class will be offered to juniors.
- Executive Functioning for College and Beyond–A semester-long course intended to address student need in the area of executive function with a focus on key areas including organization, planning, and time management.
- Peer Leadership/Helpers in Training–This is a youth leadership development course that will provide opportunities for students with leadership potential to develop their skills, gain awareness of peer, school and community issues, and understand their role in affecting positive peer influence.
Alternative School Program
A small number of our students are unable to thrive in a traditional school environment. There are many reasons for this, including anxiety-related issues and learning disabilities. Regardless of the reason, these students must be accommodated, and our staff works hard to develop education plans that address each student’s unique challenges. In some cases, this means turning to the “option of last resort,” which is to outplace students to a private school. This comes at quite a cost to the district, and is reserved only for students whose needs cannot be addressed in the Wilton Public Schools.
As a way to provide a better path for these students, the administration has proposed an “alternative school.” As proposed, students would remain in Wilton, but instead of going to Middlebook or Wilton High School, students would be located in Trackside Teen Center. Students would receive curriculum-based instruction and support services from Wilton teachers and professionals, but in a way that addresses their unique learning challenges.
The alternative school concept truly is a win-win for our district. For our students, the proposal will allow them to remain in Wilton, to be a part of our school community and, if desired, to participate in extra-curricular activities. At the same time, we are able to avoid the high cost of outplacement, and maintain active control of our students’ progress.
Assistant Superintendent of Schools Andrea Leonardi informed the board that the proposed alternative school would serve 15 students in its initial year, at a cost of roughly $28,000 per student. Compare that with the $75,000-$110,000 annual cost of outplacing each student (plus transportation), and it’s easy to see the efficiency of this proposed solution.
The need for this program was validated when many parents attended our Jan. 31 meeting and spoke about what this program would mean for their children. One mother told the board that while her son is currently outplaced, it has always been her hope that he would be able to return to Wilton for high school. An alternative school option, she said, just might be the answer to her prayers.
The alternative school program has been the focus of board discussions for the past several weeks, with a final vote scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 21. Funding for the program is included in the proposed operating budget which means that if approved, the alternative school will launch at the start of the 2019-2020 school year.
Library Learning Commons
I’ve had people ask about the role of the library in today’s changing, technology-driven school environment. In fact, our libraries have transitioned into vibrant hubs of learning, where traditional shelves of books have been bolstered by digital learning tools. Students take advantage of flexible space arrangements to work on projects either in groups or alone, and have access to unlimited research materials. It’s common for even our youngest students to generate presentations with multiple QR codes embedded, that allow easy access to additional information. Yes, our 2nd and 3rd graders are writing code.
Wilton Public Schools has been continually investing in each school’s library learning commons. And we have been recognized as a leader in promoting the learning commons concept. This budget continues this investment, largely by ensuring we keep pace with technology “best practices,” and by encouraging teachers and staff to maximize the capabilities of our digital learning tools.
The 2019-2020 operating budget is several hundred pages long, with each page listing row upon row of numbers. To the casual reader, those numbers can look a bit mundane, and quite frankly, it is not a very exciting document. But each of those numbers tells a story. I selected a few of those stories to highlight here, as a way to shed light on the innovative work taking place in the Wilton schools.