BOE Op-Ed: Support our Budget to Maintain our Level of Excellence–Students After Crisis Deserve No Less than Students Before Crisis

Standing (L-R): Mandi Schmauch, Ruth DeLuca, Debbie Low (chair); seated (L-R): Glenn Hemmerle, Gretchen Jeanes and Jennifer Lalor

The following is an Op-Ed submitted by the Board of Education in anticipation of tonight’s Board of Finance meeting to consider budgets for FY2021.

At our May 7 meeting, the Board of Education unanimously approved several budget strategies and recommendations. If these are fully implemented, our schools can preserve programs, class size guidelines, and staffing levels for next year. Students enrolled during this crisis deserve no less in educational quality than students did before the crisis. In addition, we know schools will be different in ways hard to imagine, let alone implement. Our students will begin next year with more needs than the usual summer-lag and we will adapt to where they are. Students will need support both in academics and in mental health. We can expect a combination of onsite and online learning, revisions to schedules and classroom structures, and possible continued interruptions and disruptions. Expanded health and safety protocols will be implemented. There will be costs we have not yet anticipated. We need sufficient resources and flexibility to meet these wide-ranging demands and ensure a robust education for our students.

In support of these goals, the BOE unanimously approved the following:

  1. Adopted the May 6 budget projection for year-end showing a $2.95M positive balance. This unprecedented amount is because the COVID 19 crisis resulted in closing school and moving to online learning only. Usual expenses have been reduced since March 11 including utilities, conferences, substitutes, equipment, supplies, transportation, activities, and more.
  2. With these unexpected funds, the Board approved two strategies that help reduce the FY21 budget request and help support next year’s as yet unclear picture of the learning environment.
  3. The Board approved purchase now of some routine items for next year like equipment, supplies, [and] textbooks, which takes them out of next year’s budget request.  ($377,822)
  4. Rather than embark on a lease plan for Chromebooks and teacher laptops, the Board approved purchasing the technology items upfront. The purchase avoids interest charges and lease payments in future budgets, and, very importantly, purchasing early should avoid problems created by increased national demand and disrupted supply chain issues.  The right technology tools are critical to the success of online learning.  (up to $800,000)
  5. The remaining $1.77M from the $2.95M year-end balance will be returned to the Town. Out of that amount, the BOE voted to request the Board of Selectmen to hold $869,000 in reserve should we need it for COVID-related special education compensatory costs,  possible special education increased legal costs and other unanticipated costs to address health, safety, and program needs related to the crisis. As a note, if funds are reserved but not used, they are returned to the Town.
  6. The Board of Education voted to recommend to the Board of Finance a flat (0% increase) year-to-year budget proposal of $82,344,563 (amount includes BOF appropriation last summer for the Genesis program). Back in February, the BOE adopted a budget proposal representing a $1.64M year-to-year increase. The increase is eliminated through pre-purchasing some items as described above and through deferring the $550,000 Middlebrook renovation project, significantly reducing staff training, substitutes, and travel, and reducing costs across many other areas and accounts.
  7. The Board of Education compiled additional budget models as requested by the Board of Finance that go below a flat (0% year-to-year increase) budget. None of these would be sufficient to meet our needs. The minimum budget requirement scenario (MBR is the maximum reduction amount allowed under state law) would reduce teachers, possibly increase class size, and erode programs and support for students. Reducing beyond MBR (models -2%, -5%, or -10% year-to-year) turns our system into something not recognizable.

The BOE budget recommendations help address the financial crisis created by the pandemic while also helping ensure sufficient resources to get through next year’s unknowns and to provide students with their needed high-quality Wilton educational experience. We also know successful school reopening helps support successful business and community reopening.

Our recommendation for a year-to-year flat (0% increase) budget appropriation now goes to the Board of Finance along with the other models requested. In addition, our request to reserve funds out of our year-end balance goes to the Board of Selectmen. Without the usual hearings, annual town meeting and referendum, input from the public is more important than ever. In place of voting, we strongly encourage parents and community members to make your viewpoints known through emails to the Board of Finance. We are in this together.

Wilton Board of Education

Deborah Low, Chair
Glenn Hemmerle, Vice Chair
Gretchen Jeanes, Secretary
Mandi Schmauch
Jen Lalor
Ruth DeLuca