The following is “Notes from the Board Table,” the regular update from Christine Finkelstein, chairman of the Wilton Board of Education.

Last Thursday, Feb. 1, at our regular Board of Education meeting, we did something that I never thought I’d be a part of–we asked Superintendent Kevin Smith to increase his budget proposal. Let me explain.

Two weeks ago, Dr. Smith presented the Board with a proposed budget for the 2018-19 school year that called for a modest 1.98% increase in spending. Keep in mind that last year we did not increase the budget at all, and the year before that, the increase was just 0.77%.  Dr. Smith’s proposed budget would mark the fourth consecutive year in which spending increases were kept below 2.0%.

But once our Board examined the document, and had an opportunity to hear from our principals and administrators about the many programs and projects not included, we realized the budget request was too low. While we certainly applaud and thank Dr. Smith and his team for their sensitivity to the town’s economic climate, we realized that omissions from the budget would be counterproductive, and cause harm to our schools and our students.

Among other things, we learned that adding an additional STEAM lab to Miller-Driscoll would facilitate the transition to new Next Generation/Common Core science standards, which will be implemented beginning next year; that students as young as 4- and 5-years-old are displaying signs of anxiety and other mental health issues previously not seen at such an early age; that the number of students for whom English is not a first language has more than doubled since 2013; that an alarming number of students are struggling in math; that a number of high school students unable to thrive in a “traditional” high school setting are in need of services; and the list goes on.

We came to understand that, despite the administration’s efforts to minimize the proposed spending increase, that some of these needs are critical. And so, we asked Superintendent Smith to add the following items back into his budget:

  • Social Worker:  Reinstatement of existing position to service students at Miller-Driscoll and Cider Mill. (Cost:  $124,000; 0.15% addition to the budget)
  • Special Education Administrative Assistant:  Reinstatement of existing position at Middlebrook, this function is critical to ensuring accurate and timely processing of all Special Education documents including IEP preparations and student record keeping. (Cost:  $63,000; 0.08% addition to the budget)
  • Textbooks:  We learned that licenses for online access to Math textbooks at Middlebrook and Cider Mill were set to expire. At a time when we’ve invested so heavily in the 1:1 device model, this seemed like a giant step backward. We asked to have the online license fee added to the budget, along with several requests to upgrade and replace textbooks.(Cost:  $61,000; 0.6% addition to the budget)
  • English Language Learner (ELL) teacher:  Currently one ELL teacher is charged with assisting our 33 students whose first tongues are spread across 10 different languages. An additional teacher will help manage this workload, and also allow time for ELL teachers to collaborate with classroom teachers and offer a more personalized learning experience. (Cost:  $86,000; 0.10% addition to the budget.)

The net effect of these additions will increase the proposed spending increase from 1.98% to 2.38%.

At the same time, we asked administrators to take yet another look at their proposed budgets, to determine any further reductions or efficiencies. That said, given that we are in the fourth consecutive year of “uber-lean” budgeting, I tend to believe those budgets are already bare bones. Nevertheless, we are hopeful that some creative budgeting will help bring down costs.

Now, how does this compare with neighboring districts? Current proposed budget requests include:

  • Wilton – 2.38% (tentative)
  • Darien – 2.74%
  • Weston – 3.08%
  • Fairfield – 3.2%
  • New Canaan – 3.5%
  • Westport – 4.2%
  • Ridgefield – 4.8%
  • Trumbull – 5.0%
  • Easton – 9.4%

Even with the spending additions, Wilton’s proposed budget increase is still the lowest of all surrounding communities. This is not necessarily a distinction of honor. Our proposed budget represents a very modest request, but one that funds our schools, and delivers the top tier level of education our students deserve and our community expects.

I encourage you to become involved in the budget process. You can find the proposed budget on our website, along with a detailed list of 92 questions and answers that were submitted by Board members seeking clarification on certain points. The Q&A provides a tremendous amount of information, and some great insight into district priorities. Any time you could spend reviewing that document would be time well spent.

We expect to receive a revised budget from Superintendent Smith that will include the four spending additions, along with some new efficiencies. That document will be the focus of a joint Board of Finance/Board of Education meeting scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 13 at 7:30 p.m. in the Wilton High School Professional Library. All residents are invited to attend.