Wilton heads back to school today.

If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound?

If a school budget gets presented to an (almost) empty auditorium, will Wilton parents make any noise to support their children’s education?

Last week that happened; schools’ Superintendent Gary Richards presented his budget for 2014-15 at Middlebrook Auditorium, which that fits over 700 people, but only 40 were there to listen.

I remember back in 2010 when an email went viral, urging parents to attend the town meeting and defend the school budget against deeper cuts. Parents had been lax up until that May date, not paying attention until it was too late to save foreign language classes and enrichment programs, as well as teachers, professional development and curriculum improvements.

That email filled every seat at Middlebrook, and then some. They even had to call the Fire Marshall when it went to overflow capacity.

What will it take this time to get parents to act earlier, and perhaps be in time to save textbooks, class size, curriculum initiatives, teachers, technology and most of all to keep our school district top performing?

What will it take to fill the seats and get parents to act?

The superintendent has proposed a budget for next year that aims to keep things at least the same as we have now:  teacher staffing to maintain class size; support for an inclusive Special Education approach; collaborative teaching models to make classroom experience better; and continued curriculum improvement to best prepare our children.

The budget he has proposed—to keep Wilton Schools on its current path–requires a 4.82 percent increase.

But the Board of Finance has asked the superintendent and the Board of Education for a budget that is only 1.75 percent higher than last year.

It’s tough making a budget when the bulk of the increases come from contractual increases in salaries, benefits, utilities, and special education outplacement, all out of the administration’s control. Those are unchangeable and definitive increases. It doesn’t leave much wiggle room when the BoF says keep it to 1.75 percent.

That is, unless parents speak up to say, Why just 1.75 percent?

What is in the budget that is crucial? Read the GOOD Morning Wilton article we just published about the budget. But here are the nuggets:

  • Security: $247,000 in salary and benefits for two new security personnel—a school resource officer and a new mental health professional for the middle and high school. These positions are great for the current school atmosphere, and will help identify students that may be at risk to themselves or others. But this was requested by the town Security Task Force and the school was asked to assume the cost. Plus $170,000 in security enhancements to three of the four school buildings.
  • Teachers: Three new teachers at the high school—‘when was the last time you heard that?’ was what one parent commented at the public hearing. It’s to accommodate the increase in student enrollment there next year. There’s also a new math teacher planned for Middlebrook and other staffing changes and redeployments, based on enrollment numbers at each school.
  • Operations: $50,000 to cover testing and mechanical improvements for indoor air quality at Miller-Driscoll.
  • Savings:  They’ve reduced healthcare benefits costs as well as some energy spending expenses.

So if the bulk of the budget is already set by contractual obligation and out of the super’s control, what is left to cut in order to get down to 1.75 percent?

Teachers, textbooks and curriculum development.

I’ll try to simplify the budget process for you.

  • Jan. 29: The Board of Ed has a workshop to see if they can make further cuts to the budget proposed by Richards.
  • Feb. 6: the BoE votes to adopt the budget and it officially goes from being the superintendent’s budget to being theirs.
  • March 24: Following February sessions between the BoF and the BoE there will be a public hearing at 7:30 in the Middlebrook Auditorium about the school budget
  • April 1-3: the BoF sets the Mill Rate
  • May 5: the town holds its Town Meeting, and voting on the budget commences (and is continued on Sat. May 10).

The time is now to contact your town officials, no matter how you feel. The budget gets set much earlier than the town meeting in May.

Contact the Board of Education while they are still discussing the budget, before they adopt it officially. Let them know whether you want them to defend the budget and not make more cuts. Email them at boe@wilton.k12.ct.us before Jan. 29 and definitely before Feb. 6.  All members of the Board of Ed. will get an email if you send it to that one address.

Contact the Board of Finance to let them know whether you think their suggested 1.75 percent limit is too low to keep Wilton Schools at the forefront of educating our students. Let them know what is important to you; if defending the school budget is important, it’s crucial the Board of Finance hears that opinion. Email them at boardoffinance@wiltonct.org and all members will receive an email from that one address.

Of course there’s a lot more to this story—Why is raising our real estate taxes the only solution for funding town needs? Are officials finding other ways to help support the needs of town residents?

But for now, it’s crucial to speak up and let both the BoF and the BoE know how you want your money spent.

Perhaps it will take this opinion piece going viral? Feel free to share it. But most of all it takes each and every one of you reading it to act, and it takes each and every one of you to get someone else to act.

Otherwise, all you’ll hear when that budget gets presented is an echo.

Heather Borden Hervé is editor in chief of GOOD Morning Wilton. She has been covering the Wilton schools and Wilton politics for several years. She has two children who attend Wilton schools.