Last night’s (March 4Board of Education meeting, a joint session with the Board of Finance, was the latest step in the town’s budget process which, like last year, is taking place during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But last year’s process was aided by an emergency executive order by Gov. Ned Lamont, which allowed municipalities like Wilton some accommodations on the budget process dictated by the Town Charter and state regulations.

With the pandemic still complicating matters in 2021, town officials were expecting a similar order from the governor this year. But that never materialized, leaving town officials no alternative but to work their way through the budget process in an unusually expedited fashion.

Board of Finance chair Jeffrey Rutishauser told GMW the BOF received Superintendent Kevin Smith’s 2021-2022 budget proposal last Friday, Feb. 26. The BOF then had just six calendar days to review the budget prior to last night’s joint meeting. To put that timeframe in historical context, Rutishauser said, “The usual timing from receipt of budget to joint review meeting is 2-3 weeks.”

Rutishauser said the abbreviated schedule is “entirely due” to Governor Lamont’s decision not to enact an executive order like last year, which gave the BOF the authority to approve town and school budget proposals, rather than submit them to a town vote at the Annual Town Meeting.

The BOF/BOE meeting came just one day after the Board of Selectmen finalized its proposed town budget for FY2022.  The BOF will meet with the BOS to review that budget proposal on March 16.

A Big Ask

The superintendent’s budget request is $85,569,914.86, which is an increase of roughly $3.25 million, or 3.92%, over the previous year’s budget.

Before the meeting, Rutishauser shared one observation of the budget with GMW. “This is the largest proposed annual budget increase in at least 10 years,” he said.

Indeed, Smith’s Feb. 25 budget presentation to the BOE acknowledged the proposed increase is an outlier compared to any year in recent memory.

BOE chair Deborah Low began last night’s meeting by acknowledging the large increase, while also noting that deliberations on many aspects of the budget are ongoing.

“In our conversations this week as board members, we’ve asked a lot of tough questions because our realization is that the 3.9% budget increase is large. So we are working diligently to see to what extent might that come down and still satisfy the most pressing needs for next year. We are literally in the midst of those deliberations,” said Low.

While the budget number raised many eyebrows, BOF members praised the preparation and effort that went into the budget. Rutishauser said, “This is the best laid out presentation I’ve seen in all my years… [it] makes it a heck of a lot easier for us to understand your budget. I know it was a lot of work.”

Before delving into the BOF’s questions, Smith briefly reviewed some budget highlights. His comments revealed that he anticipated the BOF would challenge the proposed increase in staffing.

“One significant question that many may have is, how could we possibly consider adding staff when enrollment is still projected to decline?” Smith asked.

That question turned out to be one of the major discussion points of the evening.

Staffing and Enrollment

Salaries, benefits and insurance account for nearly 80% of the budget. With a net increase of 4.5 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff, salaries are up 3% in the proposed budget.

Smith explained, “The proposed staff additions are intended to support a need for academic recovery and support, by keeping our elementary class size averages on the low end of our historic averages… Students will need more individualized support in the classroom.”

Smith has previously said that he expects the district will be in “recovery mode” at the start of the 2021-2022 school year, and the budget is driven by the priorities of responding to students needs, both academically and socially/emotionally, that have been so deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Smith believes the uncertainty about enrollment numbers for the 2021-2022 school year is another reason supporting the proposed staff increase. “It’s been demonstrated our enrollment is uncertain… [2022 enrollment projections] did not account for students who may return from homeschool or private school.”

Smith referred to a parent survey that revealed “at least 40 students who would be returning” and added, “I still don’t think that presents a complete picture of what we can expect for enrollment next year” given that only a portion of parents surveyed responded. (Another attempt to survey parents is expected.)

Still, BOF members seemed to take a longer-term view of enrollment. Rutishauser pressed the BOE to explain, “What proactive things are we doing to adjust for the [expected enrollment declines] the next five years?”

Smith conceded that “enrollment-driven staffing changes” could eventually be considered, but the BOE seemed resolute in the belief that 2022 is simply not the year to reduce staff in anticipation of future enrollment declines.

As Smith said at the conclusion of the meeting, “In this particular year, making efforts to keep our elementary class sizes as small as possible makes sense, not fully knowing what we are going to confront when students return in the fall.”

BOF Challenge

Rutishauser urged the BOE to look for ways to reduce the proposed budget. “We know it’s been an extraordinary year… but going forward this is a pretty large increase year over year… and I give a challenge to the Board of Ed to find what you can to try to modify that… To the extent we can show the town we are doing everything we can to lessen the burden of taxes on them will be appreciated by the taxpayers.”

Continued Deliberations

Low quickly responded to Rutishauser, “We absolutely are sensitive to the amount of the increase and are looking very hard at to what extent we can bring it down, but also respond to the needs that present themselves to us next year.”

Through its deliberative process over the last few days, the BOE has already identified several ways to potentially reduce the budget. The items to be considered were listed in a memo Smith shared at the meeting (after the BOF had concluded its questions) and included:

  • Move 1.0 CM interventionist and .5 social worker to ESSR II Grant: $170,000
  • Move 1.0 CM interventionist and .5 social worker to ESSR II Grant: $40,000
  • Reduce certified salary contingency (enrollment management): $40,000
  • Reduce Digital Resources by eliminating Presence Learning contract and supplanting with existing digital tools: $50,000
  • Reduce equipment line districtwide: $19,000
  • Reduce Training and Conferences districtwide: $20,000
  • Reduce 1.0 secretarial at MB (reassign .6 clerical from sped to MB): $103,000
  • Reduce out-of-district tuition. Special service typically plans for three potential outplacements: $65,000
  • Reduce 1.0 Certified WHS, enrollment reduction: $100,000
  • Reduce 1.0 WHS Certified STEM Coach: $100,000
  • Reduce 1.0 certified CM: $100,000
  • Reduce 1.0 certified M-D: $100,000

In sum, those reductions would result in a 1.16% decrease from the 3.92% increase in the original proposal.

“No Fat Here”

There was some concern among some members of the BOE that attempts to trim the budget further were misguided.

Glenn Hemmerle observed that much of the proposed increase is driven by contractual obligations with factors out of the board’s control, such as increases for busing, medical insurance, utilities, etc. He said, “We’re going to get to the point, if there’s a push to have a magnitude reduction in our budget… the only place it will come from is teachers, personnel… and that will dramatically impact our class size guidelines.”

Hemmerle concluded, “I don’t know how we do anything more until we start cutting meat, because there’s no fat here at all that I can see.”

Similarly, Low said, “I don’t think anyone minds taking another look [at reductions] but… over the years we’ve run lean budgets, and we’re talking about an increase against a lean budget to begin with.”

Next Steps

The BOE is scheduled to vote on the budget at a special meeting on Tuesday, March 9.

The next regular BOE meeting is Thursday, March 11.

A public hearing on the proposed BOE budget will be held on March 29.

All meetings are open to the public, but are being held on Zoom during the pandemic.  A link to the Zoom meetings may be found on the BOE website.

Residents may ask questions or comment during these meetings, but they must be submitted by email and note “PUBLIC COMMENT” in the subject line, along with your name and Wilton address. Public comments are limited to two minutes. The email will be read during the public comment portion of the agenda.

Earlier this week, the Board of Selectmen held two meetings (March 1 and 3) to complete its discussions of the town budget proposal, culminating in a unanimous vote to accept it. On March 16, it will be the selectmen’s turn to meet with the BOF for a review of the BOS budget proposal.

Expressing Your Views to the BOE

The BOE encourages input from the public. A statement on the BOE webpage offers these important reminders:

“The Board of Education relies on input from the voters to help it make informed decisions about what is right for Wilton. Letters and emails are always welcome, but please remember that all communications sent to Town boards and officials become part of the public record and are subject to legal requirements for disclosure and retention.”

Emails should include your name and Wilton mailing address. Emails sent to an individual board member will be shared with all board members. (Individual board member emails are listed under “Members of the Board of Education” under the “Materials and Reports” section on the right side of the BOE webpage.)