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.
At the town meeting last night, the Chairperson of the Board of Education, Ruth DeLuca, was precise and effective communicating the reasons why the Board of Finance should have approved the BOE’s original budget. She also presented facts around Wilton’s BOE budget increases, where even at the original BOE suggested budget level we signfincantly lag the budget increases of our surrounding towns. However, even supporters of the original school budget expressed their concern that if they vote “no too low” that the BOF, might further lower the budget rather than listening to the residents of Wilton. I firmly suggest that if you think the BOE budget is too low then a vote of “no too low” is warranted. We should count on the BOF to listen to the voters and then do the right thing, rather than voting from a place of fear which assumes the BOF will be capricious in their response. Should the town vote “no too low” in the majority, and the BOF does not listen, then that issue can be “solved” at the ballot box when the members who vote against increasing the BOE budget are up for reelection. Yes, there will be short term impacts, but in the long run, there will be better results in the future. That’s democracy.
It’s not just the risk of capriciousness, it’s also the risk that if a bunch of residents also vote ‘no, too high’, a ‘no, too low’ vote might end up pushing ‘yes’ into the minority and yet leave ‘too high’ ahead of ‘too low.’ So that the BoF would be able to claim democratic legitimacy to cutting the budget further. Whereas a “yes” vote is only risky in that it might push a “no, too high”-dominated vote past the 15% threshold.
The system is designed to discourage voting ‘no, too low’ – in the same insidious, awful way that it only lets residents cut, and not raise, the budget at the town meeting – but within that framework, the risk of a marginal ‘no, too low’ vote actually being the thing that causes the budget to be cut is substantial, and not simply due to the potential for bad faith on the part of the BoF.
(personally, I’m voting “Yes” and then voting both for pro-school-budget BoF members and pro-charter-reform BoS members in November)
In regards to turf – I was at the meeting last night. The thing that seems to be lost on people who suggest turf is a health risk – that’s a false choice. It’s not as if my kids have the option to play on turf OR grass at Allen’s Meadows. If this field isn’t built then most young athletes just go to turf in other towns to play. And that concerns me more, because many of our neighboring towns haven’t taken the steps our town has to mitigate risk through use of husk vs crumb rubber. As a parent who’s spent the better part of every weekend over the last decade driving my kids between games I know how much our town needs this asset, I’m confident what’s proposed is our best option, and will be voting YES on May 6.
Let me offer a few words of praise– and gratitude– for the BOF, so unfairly maligned at last night’s Town Meeting. Nearly all the opprobrium concerned the BOF’s paring of the BOE’s requested budget by $1.4 million, a diminution of a minuscule 1.54%. During its deliberations, I imagine the BOF turned at least one sympathetic eye toward those thousands of highly taxed Wiltonians who have NO school age children. I am one of them. I have lived in Wilton for 30 years, and during that time I estimate I have paid some $650,000-$700,000 as a portion of my real estate taxes to educate the town’s children, which included none of my own. I consider that part of my civic duty. But there is– or should be– a limit. I could have much more to say, but I’ll cut this short for now with a heartfelt “thank you” to all members of the BOF for your hard work, your wisdom, and your regard for ALL residents of our town.
The BoF pointedly ignored all of the people asking them to protect the school budget – they decided in-person and email feedback was meaningless, and only paid attention to a poorly-written survey – and several members went so far as to belittle parents opposing budget cuts. They pretended inflation didn’t exist, and made no attempt to actually run any sort of financial modeling, or even provide the BoE with advance budget guidance; they waited for the BoE to propose a budget and then whacked $1.4M off of it because they felt like it. Even if you support the outcome – which I of course stridently do not – the way they went about it was absolutely awful and undemocratic, as is this broken budget process in general. They deserve every criticism leveled at them, and then some.
If you believe that cutting the budget is actually what the majority of Wilton residents want, I hope you’ll support reforms to the town charter to let the Annual Town Meeting both increase and decrease the school budget, and to do so by paper ballot; the school budget is way too important to be left up to the day-to-day whims of a couple of spreadsheet-allergic volunteers.
Also, I’m going to be charitable and assume that you’ve adjusted your numbers for inflation, but even so, if you’ve paid $650,000 in school taxes over 30 years, that works out to $21666 per year, and that’s just the Board of Education portion of your property tax bill; I congratulate you on your great financial success, but frankly it seems a bit unseemly for somebody in a 2-3-million-dollar house to get upset about 1.54% of a school budget.
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