Tuesday night, Feb. 13 the Board of Finance and the Board of Education met for their first joint sit-down to consider and discuss the schools’ proposed operating budget for Fiscal Year 2019 (FY’19). Meeting in the Board of Education’s board room, BOE chair Christine Finkelstein greeted BOF chair Jeffrey Rutishauser and his board with her opening statement:
“Tonight marks an important step in the annual process of arriving at the budget request that will eventually be presented to Wilton’s voters. The town charter directs the BOF to review our budget and ultimately decide if our spending request is too high or perhaps, too low.”
She emphasized the “too low” with a slight pause and a look across the table, and, Rutishauser seemed to chuckle just as slightly at the acknowledgement that the BOE wants to protect its proposed budget as much as it can.
The budget presented Tuesday night varied slightly from the one the public saw two weeks ago, as the requested total grew from a 1.98% increase to a 2.24% increase over the FY’18 budget–even higher than the 1.0% guideline issued by the BOF. The larger number reflected the BOE’s instructions to Superintendent Kevin Smith to reinstate four budget items: one social worker shared between MD and CM; one sped secretary at MB; textbooks and online textbook licenses at CM, MB and WHS; and one ELL teacher to help manage the large number of non-English speaking students.
The BOE also asked the school administration to look for additional efficiencies, and Finkelstein said that the current budget proposal reflects reductions made since the last BOE meeting in professional development and school climate.
In his response, Rutishauser complemented the BOE and administrators about steps they’ve taken to work cohesively with his finance board and run the schools with more financial efficiency, including integrating Wilton’s CFO Anne Kelly-Lenz in the same role for the school district, and sharing the town’s director of facilities Chris Burney the same way.
“The more we can utilize the resources town-wide the better off we are, with a unified budget, audit, and cost structures, the more the town will benefit.”
He noted that there’s “visible progress” with a budget that–for the “first time” after several years of asking, included two years of projected financials, “It’s a long time coming but we’re getting there. We’re making strides, there’s visible progress there,” he said, noting that, “the budget report was more organized than last year, easier to read, understand and get through,” and that the BOF appreciated the “better presentation.”
Rutishauser then delivered what he described himself as a “lecture” about the financial landscape for Wilton taxpayers at the moment, and said that the BOF was there to “represent the town, and what the taxpayers are facing, with services and externally.” Among those dark spots on that landscape are:
- New federal tax bill, limiting state and local tax deductions, which “is particularly hurting Wilton with higher-income people and more expensive houses” and, at least in the future, “raising the cost of after-tax houses for our citizens and crimping budgets”
- Weak state economy
- State budget woes–Gov. Malloy proposed another $586,000 reduction, of that $387,000 for education cost sharing, taking us to zero–that has to be absorbed by Wilton taxpayers
- A threatened $4-4.5 million yearly pension contribution that continues to be floated as a possibility to fund one-third of the teacher’s pension. “That will come back to affluent towns with a financially strapped state, so we have to keep that in mind–it’s bigger than all of our contingencies. It would be serious if that hits.”
- “Fairly weak” housing market
- Weak grand list growth
“That’s what we see when we reflect on how we analyze the budget here and the BOS. They’ll get the same lecture from me in a couple weeks,” he added.
Tough Budget Times
Those concerns were reflected in the BOF’s first question to the BOE–a question that was less substantive about programs and more subjective about the propriety of asking for increase in tough budget times. It came from first-year BOF member Stewart Koenigsberg.
“Do you believe it’s fair to propose costly new programs for what’s been described as ‘unmet needs’ in this environment? Examples–expansion of pre-K to ‘typicals’ and alternative high school (although it looks like alternative high school is not in the budget)?”
Superintendent Smith responded: “Context is important. First, I don’t think anyone on the BOE would say we’ve ignored the external pressures. In fact, I would argue that recent budgets reflect those pressures.”
He broadly explained that the budget accounts for changes in educational models, in common core standard requirements, in shifts in emotional and scholastic pressures putting additional stresses on students.
“As an educator we’re making the right choices. The right choices are expensive choices. In this climate, I’m concerned about the degradation of our school system, because that would further enhance the negative economic spiral that some of us think we’re in. Do I think it’s fair? I think it’s hard to answer the ‘fairness’ question in isolation of the context, because there are many elements in the broader context that have nothing to do with anyone here in Wilton, including our public schools. Hopefully what you’ve observed while I’ve been superintendent is an active demonstration of managing some of those external pressures while continuing to provide a high quality education.”
One early BOF question that did touch on something programmatic concerned the pre-K program and how many tuition-paying students were enrolled at what tuition level–with the BOF wondering whether the cost of running a special education pre-K program integrating typical peers was a necessary cost. With Rutishauser saying past years’ numbers had been inflated, he asked what were the “real numbers” and was revenue being collected: “Are we collecting the revenue we said we were going to be collecting a year ago?”
Kelly-Lenz explained that the current year’s budgeted revenue of $40,000 was budgeted based on past experience during years where attendance and enrollment had been less consistent, and it didn’t reflect what was actually happening in the school. Now because of schedule changes for pre-K–longer hours consistently for all students, five days a week–the district was receiving more consistent tuition payments coming in from all the typical peers. On top of that was an unexpected sharp increase in enrollment of those typical peers, as the program swelled from under 50 students to 73, necessitating the addition of two classrooms, from three classrooms to five. As a result, at $7,000 tuition for each typical student, the pre-K has actually brought in $172,000 in revenue.
“That’s been collected, with the potential for another $10-20,000. If you took out the typical [peers] right now, with the level of SPED students, you would still need three classrooms–three teachers, three paraprofessionals, you still need that basis, if we took the typical kids out.”
She explained that adding the typical peers back into the equation, the net costs/expenses were $56,000.
“Bringing them back in, bringing it to the fifth classroom, from a three-classroom budget in ’17-’18, to a five-classroom budget in ’18-’19, we used internal resources, I put in $150,000–that more than covers the pre-K program, by having typical kids in there,” Kelly-Lenz explained, adding, “We need three classes legally–in going to five, we’ve managed to actually make money on the program.” Essentially, the revenue from the typical peer program covers the program itself.
Smith noted that there have been significant changes in how the pre-K program is structured and administrated, which had both educational (inclusion) as well as budgetary (reducing numbers of paraprofessionals) implications, and helped improve the way children transitioned through the district over the years.
He acknowledged the BOF preference for matrices and said that over the next few weeks the district would put together a report on the financial implications of not having a pre-K program, listing likely implications that would add to the cost of that type of model: outplacement tuition, transportation, travel costs for district staff needing to travel to those outplacements and more.
BOE member Glen Hemmerle added that the recent renovation made to Miller-Driscoll School has also increased the district’s ability to attract typical peers to the program. “It’s has been very effective in creating an environment that’s very attractive and very warm, for parents who are looking to do that.”
BOF member Walter Kress asked what the district has done to adopt changes recommended in the District Management Council (DMC) report delivered in 2015. “I’m as concerned about the efficient delivery of the appropriate services to those truly in need,” he said, noting that he had not seen a detailed analysis of any changes that have been adopted thus far, and any resulting cost savings, as well as timelines for any planned adjustments.
“That needs to be done, and put behind us, and done thoroughly,” Kress added.
Fellow BOF member Peter Balderston added, “Special Ed, for the last 10 years, has just exploded in this budget. Everyone in this rooms knows about that. An intensive focus on trying to control those costs and optimize those dollars is so important. Are we doing enough, are we taking the recommendations of qualified consultants, to try and reinforce that?”
“Special needs represents one-sixth of this town’s total budget. It’s a very significant piece and it happens to be one of fastest-growing pieces that we’re all wrestling with,” Kress echoed.
Smith replied, “This is one of those cases where you’re talking quantitative, and we’re talking qualitative, and that’s a tension we’re going to live through.”
He said of the six recommendations made in the DMC report, three of them had to do with reducing staff and making things more efficient, but that those recommendations were made “based on some assumptions.”
“Some of the assumptions built into their recommendations were things like, if we increase contact time between related service providers and students, we’ll be more efficient; if we streamline paperwork, we’ll be more efficient; if we increase group sizes, we’ll be more efficient,” he said.
However, Smith said that while those make sense, the reason those changes haven’t been seen is not because of the administration’s “lack of interest.”
“I think in whatever comparisons DMC made to their national database, they did misread the climate here in making those statements. That being said, I want you to understand, we have made changes.”
As evidence, he pointed to a reduction in kindergarten paraprofessionals, by half–something the district did even before DMC consultants made their recommendations. “We’re already there.”
Smith also listed where certain staff reductions have been made–in OT therapists, in speech and language providers.
However, Smith said, “I’m not going to propose that we will be able to come down to the levels proposed by the DMC report, because I don’t think they had our context just right.”
Something else that drives significant staffing time are PPT [planning and placement team] meetings. “In this climate, there is a very high demand for services, and that manifests itself in a number of ways,” he said, noting that there are a high number of referrals for special education.
“Our referral process–that’s all time. There are all sorts of laws and regulations that guide what we do and impose timelines in which we need to do it. We conduct comprehensive evaluations, and that takes a lot of time. We have a lot of PPT meetings with families where our service providers go through goals and objectives.”
Smith said the district has made a concerted effort to reduce the numbers of PPTs, “and we’ve seen those numbers come down pretty dramatically,” both in hours spent on them and the number of staff present, all with the intent to get service providers back in front of kids, rather than in meetings.
While staffing has shifted away from hours spent in PPTs, what the district hasn’t been able to do “to the magnitude proposed by DMC is peel back on the required number of staff.” But, he added, it’s an area the district continues to examine.
He did circle back to Kress’ original assertion about “efficient delivery of the appropriate services.”
“That’s a question for debate, something we wrestle with.” Changes have been easier to implement at the lower grade levels, but demands and different needs at the higher grade levels reflect a different set of challenges. “What we see is a shift away from identifying kids for referrals for language and learning-based needs, and a shift toward kids being identified for social and emotional or attentional needs–categories like ’emotional disturbance’… or attention deficit disorders…and then we’re required to provide services.”
That, said Smith, is an “area of work where we have a long way to go–and that is not unique to Wilton.” The increase in demand for services in social and emotional needs of students beginning in adolescence is something being seen across Fairfield County.
“What that means for us is we have to be very cautious about looking at counseling, psychology and social work services, because the demand has actually increased beyond what is mandated through the IEP. There is a qualitative answer to a quantitative question,” he concluded.
Kress countered that he didn’t think getting more numbers and data was an unreasonable request–so that the question “could be put behind us.”
“What’s been done to date, what have the savings been because this has been out there for three years. What are you working on now? Finally what can’t be done because DMC mis-read our group.”
Smith said quantifying dollars would be difficult, and Kress said, “ranges” would be acceptable.
The BOF members were skeptical that the DMC consultants couldn’t accurately understand what made Wilton so different and less able to follow cost-reduction recommendations. Smith suggested bringing back the DMC consultant to explain it, and Kress replied, “Can we recommend that they do that? So we make folks aware of that and we can put this issue behind us.”
Kress also suggested that some families at the high school level were requesting services not out of need to address anxiety concerns but to gain a time advantage during test taking, and to receive additional coaching. He also suggested that while the trend that “should” be seen was for children to “graduate out of special education, if done correctly,” the trend was the reverse, with more kids starting to receive services in higher grades.
“I’m having a hard time understanding that, and more importantly, I’d like to understand what is the root cause for all of this anxiety all of the sudden? If they think they’re going to be less anxious when they go to college, they’re going to be disappointed,” Kress said. [Later in the meeting he said that there are a small number of families that might even be trying to “game it” in order to have their children get extra time on SATs.]
Smith replied, “I would be very careful not to minimize what kids are experiencing.”
He explained the difference between the services provided for younger children versus older ones.
“What kids are identified for early on is different–typically language-based, learning disabilities. Done well, we should provide appropriate supports and accommodations with a high-quality general ed program to help that kid develop compensatory skills. At some point they should be able to go without those services. That’s the goal of independence. The reasons for referral, 7th grade primarily for us, it stops being language-based, learning disabilities and more about the social and emotional learning disabilities.”
Ultimately, Rutishauser suggested that assistant superintendent for special services Andrea Leonardi join the Business and Operations Committee meetings [made up jointly between BOE and BOF members] to be part of further discussions on special education cost savings.
One other point clarified at the end is that the proposed alternative high school is not included in the current budget.
The BOF and the BOE will continue discussions on Wednesday, Feb. 21 at 7:30 p.m..