Thursday evening’s (April 28Board of Education meeting clocked in at a brief 40 minutes, but it was enough time to cover two significant financial questions: What costs are the district anticipating to repair significant damage caused by a lightning strike at Cider Mill earlier this month? And what would get cut from the proposed FY 2023 school budget to meet the reductions requested by the Board of Finance to bring to the Annual Town Meeting next Tuesday, May 3?

The Board of Education members were dismayed by the answers to both of those questions. What’s more, the district also has another open issue related to the Cider Mill lightning strike — whether the State Board of Education will “count” the remote learning day the district used after the act of nature closed two school buildings as one of the 180 school days students are required to attend in person in a school year.

Budget Cuts

Superintendent Kevin Smith presented the BOE members with his proposed options for reducing his original budget ask of $87,571,064 in order to get to the final appropriation determined by the Board of Finance.

The BOF had set the final budget figure at $86,677,862 — an overall difference of $893,202.

As Smith had hoped, reductions to operating capital expenditures that he’d first introduced at the public hearing on the BOE budget took care of almost half of that amount:

  • $205,002 in certain renovations at Middlebrook Middle School and Wilton High School were moved to the town’s bonding schedule
  • $203,200 for the WHS lobby elevator replacement would be covered by the Board of Finance through funds from the town’s Charter Authority

For the remaining $485,000 in reductions, however, Smith had to identify other spending areas to find additional savings. Some reductions were easier than others, he said when explaining their impacts, including those achieved through retirements or personnel changes.

“We’ll be hiring a little less expensive than we currently have,” Smith said.

Others stung more — including eliminating a proposed new math interventionist at Middlebrook and reductions in social worker availability.

In considering where to make additional cuts, Smith said he prioritized reductions — including to full-time equivalent staff members (FTE) — “that [would] have the least negative impact on students and programming.” He also said he looked to first eliminate positions that had been proposed but not currently filled, rather than make reductions of current staff.

  • $15,000:  Savings from new year-one hires to replace outgoing CM assistant principal and WHS athletic director; no impact.
  • $30,000: Vacancy created through the retirement of a .5 FTE paraprofessional; impact is reduced para support services in the WHS media center.
  • $10,000: Savings from the district’s new website contract
  • $20,000: FTE reduction at WHS of .1 science and .1 art; impact is “slightly increased” class sizes in forensics and select art classes. Smith said class ratios would increase from 19 to 21 or 20 to 23. “This was really the best and only place to go. Other reductions would be doing things like reducing a class from two sections to one, which would essentially double the enrollment. And we didn’t want do anything like that.”
  • $40,000: FTE reduction at Middlebrook of .4 art; impact is to increased class sizes in 6th-grade art classes, pushing to “maybe 22 or 23,” based on enrollment declines. Smith said this class size increase was “not extraordinary.”
  • $10,000: Reduction in the number of replacement Chromebooks the district would purchase. “We’ll still have enough for each kid that is moving through the system. We’ll just have fewer replacement Chromebooks that we often use for repair or temporary loans when kids have to have their Chromebooks repaired,” Smith said.
  • $10,000: Reduction in transportation for athletics, field trips, or in-district special education transportation. Smith said specifics were not entirely clear yet where those transportation cuts would happen, but that administrators were studying the options. “It may be a deferred field trip, a deferred JV game, or something like that,” he said.
  • $70,000: Special Education contracted service with a consultant. In place of an outside consultant used to provide functional behavioral assessments. In addition, one school psychologist would be trained to provide neuro-psych assessments in-district that had been contracted out in the past.
  • $100,000: FTE reduction of .8 school social worker; this reduction, Smith called “more substantial.” He proposed to reduce this from .8 to .5, and then pay for it with the ESSR grant for FY’23. But because there is only one more year the ESSR grant is available, the BOE would have to decide what to do for FY 2024 — either add it to the operating budget expenses for 2023-2024 or eliminate the position entirely. Of note, the CT State Legislature approved bills earlier this week supporting child mental health services, which may increase available funds in this area. “My hope is that, whether funds come directly to schools or they come to community-based service organizations, some way we’ll be able to get some additional mental health support, whether it’s a social worker or another.”
  • $60,000: FTE reduction of 1.0 special education paraprofessional; Smith’s original budget included hiring another paraprofessional, but this hire would be ‘deferred’. Administrators will now have to “reorganize paraprofessional support to students with IEPs,” Smith said.

The final reduction Smith outlined was the one that stung the most: $120,000 for the hiring of an FTE 1.0 Math Specialist at Middlebrook. It was the reduction on which the BOE members focused most intensely, given how much attention Wilton’s math program — and underperforming math achievement scores — have received.

Smith said that math intervention services would be maintained at the current level, and the administrative team agreed they could “live with what we have.” He said that while the district is meeting the needs of students who require intervention services, the new position would have given the district greater flexibility to expand that number of students.

Smith noted that it still may be possible to add back in the math intervention or social worker positions. As the district approaches the end of the current school year, it’s a time when human resources may receive unanticipated resignations, creating potential opportunities to find funding for partial or full funding to fill the deferred positions.

Board member Jennifer Lalor asked if administrators considered reducing the amount of funding for professional development in order to pay for the math specialist — “instead of having so much professional development.”

BOE member Jennifer Lalor asks if administrators would consider reducing professional development allocations in order to fund — rather than cut — a math interventionist position, at the April 28, 2022 BOE meeting. (Photo: YouTube screen shot)

“I’m only going after professional development because we already know we have great teachers. We also have [Instructional Leaders]. We also have coaches, we already offer professional development above and beyond what we’re actually required to offer them,” she said.

While Smith said he wasn’t “closed off to the idea,” it still presented challenges.

“We’re going to cut a thousand dollars from this, $2,000 from that — these little pieces don’t get us there. And when we’re talking about the goals around supporting the capacity development of our staff, we’re pretty conscientious about how we support them. We do a great job of supporting our staff, we do that very well,” Smith said, adding that he could look where opportunities were but, “at this point I just, I don’t see how that would happen.”

Lalor countered that the students’ math needs were important to consider as well.

“We’ve also been talking about math this entire time as one of our board goals, and I think that’s why I’m having hard time with this,” she said.

Smith said Middlebrook students are being newly assessed this week with MAP testing, and he’s hopeful that results will show math score improvements.

“I think there is confidence among our staff that we’re going to see good results in the spring because they’ve been working really, really hard this year. Thinking about the resources that we currently have, we may find ourselves in a situation where we have fewer kids in need of intervention. So we might have an opportunity there to deploy differently or to extend in a different way our existing interventionists… So I’m comfortable deferring this for now,” Smith said, adding that other funding opportunities could emerge next year.

Smith reiterated his commitment to prioritizing a focus on math support.

“We have named and have affirmed that improving math instruction, providing math support, is a top priority. And so as time marches on, in the short term here, to the extent that an opportunity exists, the commitment is to feed the support in that direction. And I would say we’ll hold that against that mental health needs as well. And so we’ll just weigh those out,” he said.

In asking the BOE to approve his suggested reductions, Smith acknowledged the options weren’t desired but that the budget would still meet the district’s needs for next year.

“I’m asking you to hold your nose and… approve it and trust that the administration of this district has been here before. And we have made it work and we will make it work again,” Smith said.

Board Chair Deborah Low asked for a motion “in favor, [although] ‘in favor’ is not quite the right term,” to approve “un-enthusiastically,” which the board members did 5-0.

Costly Cider Mill Fixes — in Money and Possibly in Attendance

Fixing the damage caused by the lightning strike to Cider Mill will likely be costly to the district, running upwards of $200,000. But another complication may also take a toll, when it comes to how the State Board of Education views the remote learning day the district opted to use to maintain teaching time immediately following the event.

Smith explained to the BOE members what the fixes would entail, with the most significant repairs needed to the rooftop HVAC units at Cider Mill.

“These components called variable frequency drives are quite expensive and they take a long time once we order them to get them here,” he said. The hope is that the machinery will be completely repaired and operational by the start of the 2022-23 school year in August.

Officials are working with the insurance company to be reimbursed, and while the district has a small deductible, it’s still unclear whether the policy covers any overtime hours or electrician fees involved in making the repairs. Smith also said the once-deferred conversation about whether the school buildings need a backup generator may be brought up again.

“We will begin those conversations probably this summer as we’re looking at facilities and facilities upgrades, and starting to do those plans. As you know, we were looking at the potential of using bonding several years ago for those. When [facilities director] Chris Burney did the analysis, he came back to a recommendation that maybe they’re not worth the expenditure because they’re so infrequently used. But I think this most recent experience ought to enable us to revisit that question and maybe we have a different answer as a result,” Smith said.

Smith explained the other hurdle of trying to convince the State Board of Education to waive its stringent prohibition on counting remote learning days as part of the 180-day annual in-school requirement. The day following the lightning strike, Middlebrook and Cider Mill schools were closed, and the district used remote learning for students at both of those schools for the one day.

However, aside from allowances for COVID pandemic closures, the State Department of Education doesn’t allow districts to use remote teaching, and won’t recognize any reason for a district to move to remote learning.

On June 1, Smith is scheduled on the State Board of Education meeting agenda to ask for a waiver. But until that decision is made, families of Cider Mill and Middlebrook students are being advised that the district needs to plan to have one additional makeup day on June 22, while Miller-Driscoll Elementary and Wilton High School will end on June 21 — that is, unless the State BOE can be convinced to change its mind.

“We’ll plan a half day for that. Hopefully the outcome on June 1 with the State Board of Ed is that they’ll come around to our way of thinking, and we won’t have to use that extra day, but that remains to be seen,” Smith said.

So far, Smith is aware of only one other district that received a waiver, but it was a COVID-related event that happened while the governor’s previous COVID-era executive order allowing remote learning was still in effect. That order has since expired.

“To the contrary, every other request that I’m aware of has been denied,” Smith explained.

In fact, the executive director of the CT Superintendents Association told Smith that Wilton has been the only district in the state to opt to use remote learning first and then ask for a waiver after the fact. Any other district that asked first was denied.

In other past instances, schools that did not fulfill the 180-day requirement were required to add days to the subsequent school year. Smith said that option would be his “fallback” request. Because Wilton already programs 181 days into its calendar every year [which the district had already used its 181st day for 2021-22], Smith could ask to use next year’s ‘extra’ day as Cider Mill and Middlebrook’s makeup, if the State BOE remains firm.

Wilton’s BOE members were a bit frustrated by what they saw as the State BOE’s illogical rigidity.

“I understand rules and I am probably the biggest rule follower on the planet. But when it comes to completely nonsensical rules, it just flies in the face of common senseI can’t believe that anyone needs to stick by it to the point where it, I mean it would look embarrassing to be that illogical and that unresponsive,” BOE chair Low said, adding, “[Remote learning] is a tool now and now to say, ‘You cannot use that,’ is, I don’t get it.”

“They should think about, for certain things that happen to a building where it’s not safe to have children in it, that should be a consideration or an assumption,” member Pam Ely added.

Smith agreed. “There are worthy questions that deserve good reasonable answers.”

The BOE members also pointed out that adding just one day to the end of the calendar year would mean additional incurred costs to the district — and Wilton taxpayers. Teachers are contracted only through June 21; additional overtime salaries would have to be paid. Many of them also would likely have outside obligations, including their own families and childcare needs to prepare for.

Smith said he would update the Board at its next meeting on anything he heard from his contacts at the State Department of Education.