BOF Special Meeting Scheduled on ‘Last Ditch Effort’ to Fund Alternative School

Tuesday evening, Wilton’s Board of Finance will hold a special meeting to consider funding an Alternative School Program using the town’s charter authority–a move outside of the proposed FY-2020 budget. First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice and Board of Education chair Christine Finkelstein will make a joint proposal to ask the BOF just that, following concerns that the program will be eliminated now that the BOF has cut $1.1 million from the proposed school budget for next year.

The idea to fund the Alternative School Program through an allocation from the town’s charter authority, or the town’s contingency account, was raised last week, as a sort of ‘last ditch’ effort to save the program. After BOF members surprised school and town officials by voting to keep their budgets flat–eliminating $1.1 million from the FY-2020 school budget and $390,000 from the selectmen’s budget–superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith said he most likely would protect existing school programs over introducing potential new ones when looking for places in his budget to find savings.

The Alternative School is seen by officials as a positive concept for both educational and financial reasons. The program has been described as a progressive model both for offering a way to provide education to students who have a difficult time learning in a traditional school environment, and for providing a much more cost-effective way to offer that education within the Wilton school district rather than through expensive outplacement in schools outside.

Vanderslice and Finkelstein will have to convince a Finance Board whose members aren’t yet sold on the idea. The BOF has been conservative in its moves this budget season, making cuts to both the BOE and BOS proposed budgets even after providing suggested guidance for budget increases last fall.

That conservative stance stems from several members of the board who are wary of the potential impact that several state legislative proposals may have on taxes, and know that Wilton’s recent revaluation will also result in higher taxes for many residents as well. There has been conflict within BOF ranks too, with back-and-forth op-eds from members who have disagreed over whether those cuts should have been made.

If the BOF does decide to support the Alternative School Program with charter authority funds, they won’t be able to formally move the money from the charter to the BOE budget until after July 1. So all that can come from Tuesday evening’s discussion is a promise from the BOF to do so. But until then, it’s unlikely the BOE will move forward with the Alternative School without that commitment being made.

During Tuesday night’s special meeting to discuss the charter authority funding proposal, there will be no opportunity for public comment, although the public will be able to attend and observe the proceedings. Members of the public can still weigh in with their opinion on the idea via the Board of Finance email.

In a email to a resident opposed to funding the program outside of the zero-increase budget,* BOF chair Jeffrey Rutishauser spelled out his thoughts on why funding the Alternative School from the charter authority might make sense, and why he wants to hear more.

“The Alternative School… might be the rare government program that pays for itself in cost avoidance and substitution. If WPS can demonstrate that the new program can keep a Wilton 7-12 grade student at home in the program relative to a costly outplacement, it may be both service beneficial and cost effective, displacing the outplacement with an in-house lower cost alternative. But the only way to know is to operate it for a year and see who shows up and whether they would be an expensive outplacement if not for this alternative. …I don’t want the BOE to kill the only new program that might actually net save taxpayer dollars in the long run.”

The BOF special meeting will take place on Tuesday, April 23, at 7:30 p.m. in the Town Hall Annex, Room A.

*GOOD Morning Wilton obtained the email through a FOIA request for communication sent and received by the BOF with regard to the budget discussions.