Concerns about the reduced school budget were a central focus for voters in attendance at the Annual Meeting of the Town of Wilton, alongside many opinions on the proposed artificial turf field at Allen’s Meadows.
Close to 200 people were at the Clune Center Tuesday night, May 2 to hear the official presentation of the town’s recommended $134,951,947 operating budget for fiscal year 2024, along with five separate bonding resolutions, including a $1,935,000 request to fund the field.
Several residents made it clear that they were unhappy that the Board of Finance chose to cut $1,400,000 from the Board of Education‘s original 4.5% increase budget proposal of $90,581,692, a 4.5% year-over-year increase. That cut reduced the proposed budget to approximately $89.2 million, or a 2.89% increase.
Board of Education Chair Ruth DeLuca highlighted the cut in her presentation, noting it would necessitate staff reductions and shifts in what had already been considered a “maintenance” budget amidst challenging economic times.
“The budget is no longer a maintenance budget,” she said. “It is less.”
“We are making hard choices about staffing and programs across the whole district … The loss of $1.4 million has a large effect,” she said.
Several residents concurred, questioning why the Board of Finance made the cut and criticizing their process in doing so. One of them was Paul Burnham, a former BOF member.
“I am disappointed in the Board of Finance,” he said, later adding, “I am clearly disappointed and almost disgusted by the Board of Finance’s approach.”
Burnham questioned whether the Town Charter shouldn’t be revised to allow residents to overrule its decision with the final budget.
“I think this is a time when the town’s people should be given an opportunity to say to the Board of Finance, ‘No, you’re wrong.'”
In the official ballot, residents will still be able to make one of three choices regarding the budget proposal — an approval of the recommendation, a rejection of it because they believe it’s too high, or a rejection of it because they believe it’s too low.
Assuming at least a 15% turnout of all eligible voters participate through Saturday, May 6, including absentee ballots, if the combined “too high” and “too low” votes rejecting the budget win the majority, the budget is returned to the Board of Finance, moderator David Waters told the meeting.
Several people, however, though they spoke in favor of a higher education budget, said they didn’t trust that the BOF wouldn’t further cut the budget if it were returned to them.
“I’ll be voting for (it) in fear of it being cut more,” Lara Paschalidis said in a message repeated by other commenters.
Paschalidis added that there was so much being lost with the $1.4 million cut and urged the Board of Finance to take time to be “more present in our schools” through visits with staff, teachers, and parents.
“Listen to what is needed,” she said. “Listen to all the items and areas that aren’t even close to being addressed in this budget … Listen to what we as parents … want for our kids and are willing to pay for it.”
First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice, who served many years on the Board of Finance, said it was very unlikely that the board wouldn’t take the voter’s message into their deliberations, were it rejected.
“I’d be shocked if the Board of Finance didn’t take into consideration what the vote was,” she said, noting that it’s not unusual for the board to make cuts to the school budget in some years.
Resident Alan Davies encouraged the voters to vote their hearts.
“Do not be afraid of what will happen. What will happen is called democracy,” he said.
“If you believe this budget is too low … vote ‘Too low.” … I entreat everybody to vote what they believe,” he said.
David Mantilla said he and others needed to shoulder some of the blame, as they should have worked harder to voice their opinions sooner.
“Us parents need to get more involved and spread the word … We’re not doing a good job of voicing what clearly is the majority opinion,” he said.
Another resident, Dean Keister, said that despite this and past cuts, the schools still continue to maintain a high level of achievement.
“Every year the same discussion comes along (but) they must be doing something right,” he said, calling the back-and-forth between the education and finance boards “a healthy one.”
One parent, Barbara Massy Bear, said she was heartsick to see that mental health services in the school could be in jeopardy because of the cuts but still was leaning toward supporting the budget.
“One of my kids would not have made it,” she said, were it not for the school interventionist.
“Our mental health services are going to be affected … I can’t say this is okay … supporting the budget as presented (because) there are kids who will not make it.”
“I have officially lost faith in our Board of Finance this year … and that grieves me,” she added.
Another parent, Lisa Smith, noted that many people talked of the mental health aspect of sports in their support of the new turf field, but that mental health services at schools could be impacted with the education budget cut.
“Our kids spend eight hours a day in a school … You’ll cut the school budget, but you’ll support $1.9 million for a turf field. I don’t see the correlation,” she said.
Resident Jung Soo Kim mocked the survey put out by the Board of Finance in March asking residents about priorities in relation to taxes and town expenses, calling it “completely disingenuous.”
“To ask people if they want to pay more in taxes is kind of a stupid question,” she said, garnering applause from the audience.
“I don’t think it does any favors for anyone,” she said of the survey,” except for people who are looking to cut budgets for any reason.”
Resident Tom Dubin said it was “nutty” to think the BOF would make further cuts if the budget is returned to them with enough ‘No, too low’ votes, and encouraged people to express their opinions.
“The real voice of the town will come in the vote,” he said.
“If you think the budget’s too low, don’t be afraid of voting, ‘No, too low,'” he said.
Notably, there was no motion from the floor to cut the budget further, something that regularly happens at the Annual Town Meeting.
Artificial Turf Field and Other Bonding Questions
Many opinions were also expressed on the turf field allocation, which Vanderslice emphasized would only be bonded after the Wilton Athletic & Recreation Foundation (WARF) met its commitment of $500,000 toward the project.
“It’s certainly something that’s needed,” said resident Brian Stanley.
He and others stressed the limited availability of viable grass fields owing to weather and related maintenance for youth sports.
Others noted that in order to remain competitive with surrounding towns, Wilton needed to have the facility.
“We’re in an arms race with the towns around here,” said Tom Dexter, who like others said it would increase property values and draw more people to the town.
Jason Partenza, president of the Wilton Soccer Association, said investment in the field is a “must.”
“This field dramatically improves our standing … This investment will pay dividends for years and years to come,” he said.
While the town recently completed tests on the two existing artificial turf fields to demonstrate that no toxic chemicals were being introduced through them into the water, several residents still expressed misgivings.
“We need multiple studies to really understand cause and effects,” said Andrew Chi, who identified himself as a medical professional.
Resident Olivia Bugaj, who grew up in Greenwich as an athlete, said she developed a lifelong autoimmune disorder which she attributed to playing on fields there that were ultimately found to be contaminated with chemicals.
“I feel like, from my perspective, we owe it to our kids to know that where we are putting them to play is a healthy environment,” she said.
The four other resolutions on the ballot include $950,000 for a new fire engine, $780,000 for a roof replacement at Middlebrook School, $275,000 for a new elevator at Cider Mill School, and $127,000 toward design work on Scriber Hill Rd.
The voting continues on Saturday, May 6 at the Clune Center (395 Danbury Rd.) from 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Voters must be in the building by 6 p.m. to vote.
Applications for absentee ballots are available at the Town Clerk’s office at Town Hall (238 Danbury Rd.) on Wednesday, May 3 and must be received by the Town Clerk no later than 6 p.m. on Saturday, May 6. Ballots may be placed in the Official Drop Box outside the back door of Town Hall up until 6 p.m. on May 6. Voters who choose to return a ballot by mail should note a May 6 postmark is not a receipt. The special absentee ballot application is available online.
Individuals who want to witness the results of the vote in-person on Saturday, May 6 must be inside the Clune Center by 6 p.m. Observers are asked to sit on the stairs to the side of the Zellner Gallery, and should not hover or disrupt those working at the polls.