BOF Holds Public Hearing on School Budget–and Only 20 Residents Show Up

In one of the lowest-attended public hearings on the school budget ever, only about 20 members of the public showed up to attend the Board of Finance public hearing on the Board of Education budget for FY2020.

What’s surprising is that so few residents attended, even though town officials once again raised several red flags about the financial situation Wilton is facing–and how that may hit taxpayers hard. Given potential new costs from state leaders in Hartford, on top of a declining grand list, Wilton taxpayers could be facing a shock when it comes time to honestly face their tax bills.

Nonetheless, town officials on Monday evening addressed an auditorium of mostly empty seats. Board of Finance chair Jeffrey Rutishauser (left) started the meeting off explaining how his board formulates the mill rate calculation and what they project the mill rate increase would be with the budget requests from both the schools and the town; however, he said because of several legislative moves in Hartford, that projected mill rate increase calculation could be jeopardized–significantly.

“What I just presented is what would generally happen in a normal year. But this year is not normal. There are several legislative proposals being debated in the state government that would increase our costs, reduce our revenue sources or both. In the worst case scenario, the total financial impact could be up to $14 million negative for this and coming years,” Rutishauser told the audience.

Of the proposals in Hartford that stand to impact Wilton’s budget, there is a likely contribution to the state-run teacher’s pension fund; a shift of the auto tax as a revenue from town to state, which would cost Wilton as much as $6 million that would need to be made up elsewhere; and a change in the homestead exemption, which might cost Wilton $7-8 million in revenue.

“There are even more proposals under consideration that we are concerned about. Not all may be enacted or in the coming Fiscal Year but Wilton will need to be prepared if the worst case hits us,” Rutishauser added.

He noted that Wilton’s three major boards–Finance, Education and Selectmen–will be meeting Monday night, April 1, to assess the potential financial challenges coming from the State.

As for what the Board of Finance has calculated so far, before taking Hartford’s moves into account, Rutishauser said the BOF members project a 2.56% mill rate increase.

The slide above illustrates how that rate increase is calculated.

  • At the top are the major components of the operating budget–including the town’s debt service, which Rutishauser said has dropped for the second straight year; the budget requests from the schools and selectmen, and the charter authority–totaling $128.2 million, a 0.51% increase over the current year.
  • Offsetting these budget expenditures are a $4.75 million in non-tax revenue and a $2.7 million drawdown of the Fund Balance in excess of the necessary reserve level.
  • As a result, the amount needed to be funded is $122 million, a 0.43% increase over last year.
  • Then, the BOF looks at the Grand List–the property that can be taxed to raise those funds. With the revaluation, that Grand List dropped 2.08%. At the current mill rate, that translates into $2.5 million less tax revenue than last year.
  • In all, that totals the $3.05 million shortfall.

To close this gap, the BOF either has to look for places to cut in the BOS and BOE budgets or raise taxes, or a combination of the two. Without budget cuts, to cover the budget for FY2020, the Mill Rate would need to increase by 2.56% over last year.

Other important points Rutishauser made concerned the financial health of the town, and how the BOF assesses that.

He explained that maintaining a AAA rating from Moody’s is a “top priority” of the town. To do that, “Wilton is required to maintain at least 10% of annual operating expenses as reserves in the General Fund. This required reserve amount is $12.9 million, and is generally invested in investment grade short and intermediate term securities,” Rutishauser said.

In addition, the unfunded pension liability is monitored. Rutishauser said the pension plan is 98.7% funded following a few years of strong investment performance.

Board of Education Presentation

Board of Education chair Christine Finkelstein (right) delivered the presentation for the budget her board was requesting.

Of note, this year seemed to reflect a more unified front between the Boards of Education and Finance, more so than in years past. Perhaps that collegiality stems from the BOE members bringing in a budget below the guidance given them by the Finance Board; or maybe it’s because as a town Wilton faces what Finkelstein referred to as being “in the crosshairs of legislators in Hartford.” Or perhaps it’s because the two boards are spending more time working hard to reach similar goals.

She started off by thanking the BOF, “who have also put in countless hours to understand our school spending priorities and evaluate our budget request. And I have to say, with the Wilton Schools currently in the crosshairs of legislators in Hartford, we appreciate our partnership with the Board of Finance, as we work together to protect our community’s investment in our schools. It’s not a position we chose, but here we are, and we are grateful to have the Board of Finance’s full support as our town confronts these challenges.”

She later noted that the two boards share a concern over the town’s fiscal situation, and reiterated the BOE’s “commitment to limiting our request to the funds needed to run our schools–and not a penny more.”

The proposed BOE budget for FY2020 asks for $82,983,607, or a 1.35% increase over existing spending levels–what Finkelstein said is the “fifth consecutive lean budget.”

Despite presenting a budget that asks for less than the 1.6% guidance offered by the Finance Board, Finkelstein said the budget she was presenting still “…fully funds our schools for the coming year, meets our community’s expectations for excellence, and is highly cost efficient.”

She later added, “With this budget, we are pleased to present a spending plan that meets all program and staffing requirements for the 2019-2020 school year. A budget that efficiently delivers the high level of academic instruction our community expects, and our students deserve.”

ROI and Results

She also said that continued investment in the school district has a high return on investment.

“I want to assure members of our community that your investment in the Wilton schools continues to produce high quality results, and that we can take pride in the world class education our students receive.”

She pointed out that US News and World Report currently ranks Wilton High School in the top ten of all Connecticut high schools, and in the top 1.0% nationwide. Additionally, in 2019 Niche.com lists Wilton as the 6th best school district in the state, and the 3rd best for STEM, with Wilton teachers ranked 4th best in Connecticut, and the WHS athletic department  ranked 12th.

 

She also highlighted achievements of last year’s WHS graduating class:  two National Merit finalists, one semi-finalist and 23 commended students; 64% of the Class of 2018 was admitted to the nation’s most competitive colleges, as ranked by Barron’s; and 35 members of the class signed letters of intent to play Division I, II and III sports while at college.

 

Finkelstein touted the current senior class, saying it “…promises to be equally impressive, based on students’ strong SAT performance. Wilton’s scores ranked 7th best in the state, just three points shy of being ranked number four.

She also touched on student achievement outside of the numbers based on performance in the classroom, or beyond the playing fields.

 

 

 

Here, Finkelstein mentioned the new Board of Education “Salute to Excellence” initiative, which recognizes groups of students for their noteworthy accomplishments–most recently 3rd graders for their transdisciplinary project on indigenous peoples (including third graders who can write code because they learned how in second grade); the students who produce Miller-Driscoll’s daily news show, MD-TV, which earlier this year marked its 500th episode; and the WHS Madrigals, who she said perform ‘magical’ music.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She also told of the recent rigorous evaluation of the district’s K-12 English Language Arts Instruction that was recently completed  by the Tri-State Consortium. Through the consortium, administrators and teachers from top schools in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey conduct extensive on-site examinations of a district’s approach to a particular curriculum area. The Tri-State teams are “notoriously tough graders, and usually very selective in offering praise.”

The final report, Finkelstein said, “was glowing,” reflecting well “on the high level of instruction and quality of teaching that goes on across the district every day.”

She read two excerpts:

“The Team wishes to validate and affirm the high quality of work and to acknowledge the significant, positive growth that has already occurred at all levels of the system.” 

“Wilton is in a good place. Everybody cares and it shows.”

 

By the Numbers–Budget Drivers, Comparison, Etc.

Finkelstein then said it was important to put the overall budget number in context. She noted that in 2018 the increase was 1.62%; the year before, the BOE brought in a flat budget with no increase; and that in 2016 the budget increased only by 0.77%.

Finkelstein said that the budget is rooted in several underlying assumptions. First, salary increases:

  • Teacher salaries will increase by 3%
  • Administrator salaries will increase by 3.4%
  • Custodial salaries by 2%
  • Secretaries and paraprofessional salaries will increase by 2.3%

Moreover, there are other known cost increases:

  • Utility costs will increase by 6%
  • Transportation costs will increase by 4%
  • Liability insurance costs will increase by 5%

But, there were favorable projected decreases to factor in:

  • Medical insurance costs are down 4.6%
  • Pension and OPEB contributions are projected to decrease my more than 8%
  • Student enrollment will drop by 32 students.

As always, the BOE starts with fixed costs accounting for almost 90% of what it has to spend. That leaves a very small slice of the pie from which school officials figure out where they can focus spending power.

How the budget is spent is clear–the largest piece of the pie at almost 80% is what the district pays in salaries and provides in employee benefits. Contracted services, outplacements, supplies and equipment account for 14%, followed by transportation costs at 4% and buildings, operations and facilities at 3%.

 

Within each category, Finkelstein outlined the year-to-year changes. First the increases:

  • Contractual salary obligations are rising more than 3.8%.
  • Professional services will increase by almost 10% percent, to almost $6 million due to increased costs associated with technology leasing and professional development.
  • Property services will increase by $100,000, or 15% for building upkeep. Scheduled projects include addressing a drainage issue in the Middlebrook courtyard, locker room tile replacement in the high school, and continued painting in all buildings.
  • Supplies and materials purchases will increase slightly, by less than 1.0% in order to accommodate a $60,000 increase in transportation fuel costs, along with supplies for the new alternative school program.

Then the spending reductions:

  • Purchased services will decrease by almost 5% or roughly $400,000, thanks to expected reduction in special education tuition costs, and closing out several contracts.
  • Insurance and benefits will actually decrease by more than 8%, or more than $1 million, because of favorable medical claims history, and because OPEB and pension plans have increased in value, reducing our annual required contribution.
  • Spending on equipment will be down by almost 3%, but will still allow for replacement of musical instruments, science equipment and digital cameras for use in certain art classes.

How does Wilton’s spending compare to its neighbors?

Finkelstein said that its request for a 1.35% budget increase is the lowest of all DRG-A schools.

She also noted that with Wilton’s pattern of lean budgeting has placed the town at the bottom of the DRG in terms of compounded budget increases over the past five years.

Finkelstein said the trend is also evident in per pupil cost, showing Wilton at number six out of eight districts in such spending.

 

Enrollment

Finkelstein dug a little deeper to explain the enrollment decrease.

She said that Wilton bases its projections on numbers from the New England School Development Council, a source that officials say have historically been the most consistently reliable. Based on NESDEC estimates, the BOE expects a 2019-20 school year districtwide enrollment of 3,942 students, which is a decrease of 32 students from the current year.

Finkelstein reiterated something the BOE frequently states:  “Predicting enrollment is not an exact science. Ultimately, we accommodate whichever students arrive in our schools in September and make necessary adjustments throughout the year.”

Looking at just K-12 students (removing Pre-K, Community Steps and outplaced students from the total), there will be 3,835 K-12 students next year. This slight reduction continues a trend of decreasing enrollment that began several years ago–a trend that NESDEC forecasts will continue, at least through 2028, when total enrollment in the Wilton schools will be roughly 200 fewer students than current levels.

It’s something Finkelstein says is very much on the administration’s our radar. “Discussion has already begun at the administrative level to ensure we are not caught off-guard, should these reductions materialize.”

New Initiatives

Alternative School Program

One new initiative the BOE is taking aims to keep more students in the district–that’s the recently approved Alternative School Program. This option was created for students who are unable to thrive in a traditional school environment, whether due to anxiety-related issues or learning disabilities, or other reasons. “Regardless of the reason, these students must be accommodated, and our staff works hard to develop education plans that address each student’s unique challenges,” Finkelstein explained.

In years past, the district would typically out-place these students in private schools. Now, the Alternative School Program will allow these students to remain in Wilton, but instead of going to Middlebrook or Wilton High School, will be located in Trackside. (Some students whose needs cannot be addressed in the Wilton Public Schools.)

The Alternative School program will be staffed by three full-time teachers, and one social worker; the BOE expects to enroll 15 students during the program’s initial year, at a cost of roughly $28,000 per student–which is considerably lower than what Finkelstein says is the cost to out-place each student, at $75,000-$110,000 annually, plus transportation. “It’s easy to see the efficiency of this proposed solution,” she says.

The Alternative School goes hand-in-hand with the existing Community Steps program, which currently serves Wilton’s 18-21-year old students with carefully structured living and learning experiences that take place in Wilton. The Alternative School Program budget includes the addition of two job coaches who will help students gain critical skills and confidence to secure employment, and to succeed in a work environment. “Adding the job coaches will essentially complete the circle with these students, by providing the final link in their Wilton education, and preparing them for their post-high school transitions,” Finkelstein said.

Investing in New Curriculum and Teachers

Five new courses will be added to the Wilton High School curriculum next fall:

  • Data Structures and Algorithms
  • A revised United States History course
  • Executive Functioning for College and Beyond
  • Peer Leadership/Helpers in Training
  • Literacy in a Digital World.

The district will also maintain its full selection of 24 Advanced Placement and 6 UCONN Early College Experience Courses, offering students college level instruction and the opportunity to earn college credit hours while in high school.

Finkelstein said the budget reflects a commitment to continuing investment in the district’s teachers. She noted that last year, the 21 new teachers hired had been selected from a pool of more than 800 applicants. “That means we selected the top 3% of candidates. So clearly, Wilton continues to draw and retain the absolute finest teachers of any district.”

She said continued investment in the teacher coaching model as well as providing opportunities for professional development “…ensure(s) they remain well-versed in current instructional methods, and better able to deliver the type of one-on-one learning that really defines 21st century instruction.”

Special Education

The budget proposal includes funding for a new special education assistant director who will be assigned to Middlebrook and the high school. According to Finkelstein, adding this new staff member is meant to increase efficiency and handle the growing workload.

“Those of you with children who receive special services know firsthand how labor-intensive and frankly, how bureaucratic the process can be. Our current configuration is insufficient to handle the volume of work. By adding a coordinator to work specifically with our secondary students–including Community Steps, the Alternative School program, and our outplaced students–we will be better able to track student progress, ensure compliance with the volume of state and federal mandates that affect special education, and ensure we avail ourselves of all grant and reimbursement opportunities,” she said, adding this role will strengthen services, and better manage student caseloads, as well as ensure legal compliance.

Finkelstein also said that the budget reflects a “cost avoidance” of $460,000 in the area of special education, thanks to concerted efficiencies. She says the district has:

  • become more efficient at diagnosing learning issues at an earlier age, and providing students with early intervention services to hopefully avoid the need for special education services later on
  • increased the investment in qualified reading specialists at the early elementary level
  • streamlined the process for the hundreds of PPT meetings that take place each year between parents, administrators and special education professionals–resulting in less staff time away from students, reduced need for substitute teachers and considerably less paperwork
  • brought formerly out-sourced services and personnel in-house, helping to avoid the extremely expensive alternative of outplacement to a private school in some cases

Increasing Personnel Headcount?

The budget reflects a net change of 7.6 new positions. Finkelstein acknowledge the seeming irony of adding new staff at a time when enrollment is dropping.

“Enrollment is expected to decline next year by just 32 students. And those students will be spread across all grades, which will preclude any significant staffing reduction. Our budget ensures we have the exact number of personnel required to run our schools. For next year, we have budgeted for an overall staffing level of 576.39, which is an increase of 7.6 from existing levels,” she explained.

Among the new positions are:

  • One Kindergarten teacher
  • 3 Alternate School teachers
  • 2 Community Steps Job Coaches
  • 1 Special Education coordinator
  • a few part time positions including an additional athletic trainer and pre-school teacher.

Finkelstein said she knows the community may ask why staffing hasn’t declined in proportion with–if not faster than–the rate of enrollment decline?

“My answer is that education doesn’t work that way. Please keep in mind that we are dealing with living, breathing students and we must adapt staffing to meet the specific needs of students,” she said.

Finkelstein cited several reasons why schools in the current era require new approaches that may equate to increasing staff positions.

The first is to meet the needs of a student population that is increasingly dealing with rising levels of anxiety, stress and depression, or other social ills like bullying and drug addiction–things Finkelstein says, “don’t skip over our little community.”

As proof she pointed to the study conducted last year in Wilton by nationally acclaimed researcher Dr. Sonia Luther, who found an alarming 30% of WHS students have “above average” levels of internalizing symptoms, compared to a national norm of 7%. In addition, even Wilton’s youngest students are impacted. Finkelstein mentioned that Miller-Driscoll staff reports an alarming rates of student-reported anxiety and mental health issues previously not seen at that level.

“In many instances we have had to refocus the work of our guidance and mental health professionals to address these increased social and emotional needs. Wilton is certainly not unique in facing these challenges, but we as a community must understand that we are making these investments, and that in many instances, it has prevented staffing reductions,” Finkelstein said.

 

Finkelstein said another reason for increasing staff numbers is to meet the challenges of how education is changing. Job skills and 21st-century learning are different, requiring adaption.

“Consider if you will, the top 10 job skills employers will be looking for in 2020, which of course is next year. This list was compiled by the World Economic forum, and you can see it’s very different from the ‘Reading, Writing, Rithmetic’ model that has traditionally defined education. To meet these changes, we must staff differently. As we embrace 21st century learning, we must adapt staffing to accommodate positions that simply didn’t exist as recently as four or five years ago,” Finkelstein said.

She also noted some instances where specialists have been brought in-house to provide services that were previously outsourced, which was more costly. “So, while we have added headcount, we’ve actually achieved savings,” she said.

She also provided a graph to compare Wilton’s staffing levels to its DRG counterparts, with data from the State Department of Education, saying Wilton is “pretty much right in the middle of the pack.”

 

 

Resident Reaction

With so few residents who were not affiliated with the schools in the audience there were just a handful of people who rose to give comments.

Tammy Thornton:  When my husband and I finally had enough money to buy a home, we looked everywhere, but we settled on Wilton. It was this hidden gem. We knew people who had moved here, and we knew why people moved here it was always for the schools. As a parent of small kids looking to buy, that is my top priority, that is the first thing I look for when I move into a town. Then you come here and you find all these wonderful community resources, like our library and Merwin.

Yes, everything is happening in Hartford, and I worry that would make us want to reduce our education budget even more than what we’ve come under our guidance. But the mass amount of people that went to Hartford, who stuck out and really fought for our schools, as a town we need to stick to supporting our schools even if Hartford doesn’t. That’s really important for our Board of Finance to consider–we really need to support our schools. Because that’s what brings people here–they come here for the schools.

Stephen Hudspeth:  It’s clear that these consolidations and separation of town boards proposed in Hartford are really quite crazy; the ones that have mandatory elements are ridiculous on their face. That being said, it’s incumbent upon us–and in Wilton’s role in constantly leading in things the state needs the most–to be thinking very precisely about what it can offer as a positive plan forward to deal with what is clearly the straw man that’s been presented in many different guises. Beneath those straw men is the underlying reality of educational inequality in this state. It’s a pressing issue we need to address.

 

 

In Hartford has been a very successful open choice program that has brought students from downtown, inner-city Hartford, out to some 26 school districts around the Hartford area. There is no reason a program like that can’t be replicated across districts, and I understand Westport already has an arrangement like that with Bridgeport. I think we should be part of thinking how we can do that. Being positive in that way, with numbers we saw–$14 million in possible charges to our town, which is ridiculous on its face, towns can’t absorb that–we need on our part to come forward with something that’s positive, that lays how we can go forward, and how we can deal with that underlying fundamental issue that is driving so many of these crazy legislative proposals. That is addressing educational inequality across our state.

Moses Alexander:  One of two things, if Hartford pushes down costs to the town, you can call it tax increase, or you can call it a budget cut–it’s not happening in Hartford, it’s going to happen here. So my question to the BOF, how much do you feel we can reasonably raise taxes? And to the BOE, how much are you prepared to cut out of your budget if these things come to fruition?

To which BOF chair Rutishauser answered that none of the boards have discussed this, but will at a tri-board meeting of the BOF, BOE and BOS on April 1, and that no one could speak prematurely. “All of us are going to think long and hard about what we need to do to handle the uncertainty that’s going to come after we set our mill rate.”

Michael Salit:  It is very concerning that there are those who would try to separate the reality of what’s going on in the state from that which is going on within our borders, or to put undue characterizations between what’s happening within our borders and what’s happening in adjacent towns. I don’t really care, and don’t know how relevant it truly is, how much another school system is asking for with regard to an increase in their budget.

What is evident is what we here in Wilton need, what we require and what we’re able to underwrite as a community. It was an eye-opener last week at the BOF to hear what our elected officials had to say. Their words seem to be not ringing here this evening. It’s important that we recognize what we heard and what we did not hear from them, as the cacophony continues up in Hartford.

The most striking of the remarks were the remarks made succinctly…Rep. O’Dea. I’m going to paraphrase him:  “The sky is falling down, now. Not tomorrow, not next week, not next month, not next year. Today.” He cautioned in no uncertain terms the BOF:  “This is not even a time for looking at a zero-increase budget.” He cautioned in no uncertain terms that no matter what happens in Hartford–and something will happen–we need to be looking at negative budgetary realities in this town. He was very succinct, very clear.

That sound you hear is people leaving the state. That pressure you feel is Hartford’s hand in your pocket, your purse, in your wallet. We can only do so much here locally, and they in Hartford are looking to potentially take away some of our discretion away from us.

As difficult as it is to know what is in the minds of the people in Hartford, we must be responsible to the reality before us. There is a move afoot that is going to cost us here locally.

Sooner or later the Board of Education is going to have to reconcile the realities of the financial circumstances and the staffing you put out into the system. There is over the course of time a systemic bloat that occurs, and it requires a very diligent objective serving what we have in staffing, what it is they actually do, and whether they are critical–a factor we need to address going forward. We need to be thinking about tomorrow.

Carolyn Lyon:  Next year I will have four kids in all four schools in Wilton. What I’m looking forward to is the initiatives that are being put in place–block scheduling at the high school and the attention being paid to the mental health of our kids. I’m inspired by the pictures I see on the Twitter feed, it’s amazing to see what the kids are doing. And the professional development that is being supported by the BOE for those awesome teachers that we have is incredible. Professional development needs to continue and the teachers need to be supported in that way. I hope that this BOE budget is supported.

Maggie Feltz:  Somebody commented about neighboring towns–I have to disagree with his statement. It really shows how the board approached its fiduciary duty to this town that [the increase] is at 1.35%. Thank you for that.

You’ve tried to plan for the needs that these students and the district have today. We need to focus on today and now, and tomorrow, but we need to be careful that we don’t fall into scare tactics too much, but focus on what matters:  what these students need.

The fact that we’re in the top 1.0% in the nation is amazing. Congratulations to all of you.

I have a special needs child…he started third grade at Cider Mill, and he is taking Spanish and cello. My child has experiences here that other people can’t fathom. I can understand why it might seem learning Spanish and playing the cello isn’t really important, but watching a child on the autism spectrum access his education through the cello with an amazing teacher, and come home and speak in Spanish and learn things just by studying in a typical way is a gift. Thanks for that gift.

Moses Alexander:  Based on everything I’ve heard tonight, I think the town should plan in the neighborhood of $5 million, and it should be presented as part of the budget, either as a tax increase that the voters will have a chance to vote up or down on; or as spending reductions. But that would seem to be reasonable planning due to the environment coming down from Hartford.