Last night (Thursday, Feb. 25) the Board of Education welcomed the Board of Finance to their board table in the WHS professional library, where the members of the two town boards began discussing the FY ’17 education budget, talking face-to-face for the first time about the proposed $81 million budget proposed by BoE members and the school district’s administrators.

The Board of Finance had set suggested guidelines for an increase over the previous year’s budget, giving the BoE a target figure of a 1-percent increase. The Board of Education came back with an $81 million budget that reflected a 1.27-percent increase. Since then, the Board of Finance has laid down a decent amount of P.R. groundwork, making a case for cuts they’ll possibly ask the Board of Education to make.

At their own meetings, and again last night, the BoF members talked about how ‘tight’ the coming year will be, how the debt service will be much higher than in years past because of mostly education projects funded by bonding, how relatively little the grand list has grown, and that because there will not be as much budget savings from the current year* as in years past to offset increases, the only two options they have would be to cut spending or increase taxes.

They’ve also distributed and published information about enrollment decreases, with charts projecting continued decline in student enrollment that they say needs to be matched by tightened budgets and cost reductions.

Further, they point to last year’s town budget vote, saying that the majority of voters who did show up to the polls voted against last year’s proposed budget. They say the budget only passed because the charter mandates it automatically passes when fewer than 15-percent of the town’s eligible voters show up, and that really, the majority of people in town don’t want budget increases.

But last night’s conversation between the two boards about the budget had to happen so that the BoF members could learn how the BoE arrived at their final figure of $81 million, and that they could ask questions of the education board members to gain a better understanding. The bulk of last night’s meeting involved the BoE members answering questions posed by members of the BoF.

They talked about costs associated with Special Education—a lot. They talked about the cost of athletics. They talked about gifted curriculum, about class size, about declining enrollment numbers. They talked about technology investment. They talked about mill rates and how the quality of the school district is the largest attractor to new residents, but that the schools are also the biggest piece of the town’s budgetary pie.

As much as the folks sitting on each side of the table said they understood where the folks on the other side were coming from, what seemed to creep into the undertone of the conversation was the tension of two sides coming at the discussion from different points of view. On one side of the table there was the focus on numbers and costs, and the analysis of where those numbers will impact what residents will write on checks come tax time. On the other side of the table, was the question of how to best serve each student, given the reality of balancing the many different types of learners in a constantly changing educational landscape in as cost-effective a way as possible.

The clash of approaches was most apparent during a discussion about special education students who are placed in schools and programs outside of the district which better serve their needs. One member of the Board of Finance noted, “special needs are growing at a rate much more rapid than the general rate of growth of the budget itself,” and he asked whether the district ever challenges some requests for services. “I know it’s a very tough thing to manage, but I also know we’re shipping a couple more people out of district at considerable expense. Is there no other way to address the needs of some of these, are all of these really the best way to serve the child’s needs as well as to do it cost effectively? How are you handling some of those challenges because they seem to be a key driver.”

Ann Paul, the assistant superintendent for special education, responded, saying, “It is a very weighty decision for the families as well as the district. Sitting in the meetings with families, most are despondent that their children can’t stay here. In every example, the school has really maximized its resources. These are children some of whom are medically fragile, we’re not equipped to deal with serious medical needs. We have children with very serious psychiatric illnesses. We go to extraordinary measures to try and make it work for the kids here. We want students to be in their home school, but there are times they’re not making progress or we feel that other students are unsafe. It’s a very long, thoughtful, heart-wrenching experience. I’m very conscious of the costs. In CT, we have very few options for schools; we can only send children to a state approved school. They set the price and we pay the price—they’re non-negotiable. I want you to understand how seriously we all take outplacement. You might see numbers go up; we can’t share the stories behind the outplacement, but they’re children with very significant needs.”

Opening Statement

Bd. of Education chair Bruce Likly read an opening statement from prepared notes. In it he acknowledged the tough job the Bd. of Finance faces in needed to keep costs as low as possible, but he also challenged the tack the BoF took in questions they asked in looking at the proposed education budget:

“It is my belief that this year’s budget has actually been more thoroughly vetted by our Board than in any previous year. But unlike past years, much of this year’s discussions took place in committee meetings over the course of the past year.

So please be assured that this budget has been thoroughly reviewed, and has the unanimous support of our Board.  We believe this budget funds the needs of our schools for the 2016-17 school year, and does so in a way that achieves efficiencies in several areas, and expands on our goal of delivering a ‘best in class’ education to our students.

With regard to the questions that were submitted by members of the Board of Finance, we provided written responses to those inquiries, which I trust members have had an opportunity to review.  Members of the community can review those questions and answers via the District website.

If I may, I’d like to comment on the nature of some of these questions.  Please keep in mind that every question was answered by a member of the administration who had to take time away from their responsibilities to formulate a response.

We certainly have no problem asking our administrators to perform this work, when it is warranted.  Indeed, it is part of our administrators’ responsibilities.  We do though, take issue when questions are intended to make a point, rather than to obtain information.

For example, one question asked why families in need of Special Education services choose to move to Wilton.  I’m not sure what sort of answer the asker was expecting, but it seemed the intent was only to perpetuate the myth that Wilton is some sort of haven for special education and offers premium-level SPED services.

Other questions asked about why we need so many substitute teachers, our commitment to the Common Core, and why headcount is higher in some classes than in others.  Certainly these may be interesting, but I urge our Board of Finance colleagues to refrain from using our budget interactions as a venue for micromanaging the way we run our schools.

I commit to you – we are asking for only the funds we feel we need to run our schools most effectively and not a penny more.”

Likly also challenged the assertion that declining enrollment should mean deeper spending cuts

“One issue that I would like to comment on though, is the often-repeated theme that since we will see a modest enrollment decline, that spending should decrease proportionately.

This is a proposition that is not supported by the math.  Let me explain.

We are expecting 99 fewer students next year which translates to a projected 2.3% enrollment decline.

It would certainly make things easier if all 99 of those students were in the same grade, so we could just chop off 4 or 5 classes from that grade level.  Or if they all lived on the same street, so we could just eliminate a couple of bus routes.

But it’s not that easy.  We expect to see reductions pretty much across the board.  A few students here, a few students there.  There will though, be a reduction of one unit of fourth grade and one unit of fifth grade, since there will be significant declines in enrollment in those grade levels.

Critical to note though, is these short-term reductions do nothing to mitigate our fixed costs.  Buildings still need to be heated and cleaned.  We need to pay for our principals, superintendents and custodians.  Having a few less students in each building does not change this.

We are though, using the occasion of next year’s enrollment decline to reduce headcount.  Our proposed budget eliminates two classroom teachers at Cider Mill, and 1.75 teachers at the High School.  It eliminates 6 paraprofessional positions, a direct result of the recommendations from the District Management Committee special education audit that took place last year.

So while it seems to make sense that a drop in headcount should result in a decrease in our operating budget, fixed costs simply make this impossible.  In a perfect world, in which 100 percent of our costs were variable, and inflation was zero, we could match a 3 percent decline in enrollment with a 3 percent decrease in spending.

It’s not a perfect world, and given a 2% inflation rate, contractual obligations and our need to keep the lights on, it’s unrealistic to expect a commensurate reduction in spending.”

Likly also pointed to what other districts in surrounding towns are doing with regard to education budgets:

“I think it’s also worth taking a look at what some of our DRG counterparts are doing:

  • New Canaan is discussing a 4 percent increase, which would follow last year’s 5 percent increase.
  • Darien’s Board of Education approved a 3.5 percent increase, and Ridgefield is considering a 6.16 percent increase.
  • Weston is looking at a 1.68 percent increase and Easton’s Board has approved a 1.26 percent increase.

Our budget calls for a 1.27 percent increase, which falls close to the 1.0 percent guidance set by the Board of Finance. As you can see, other districts – districts against which our students compete for college admissions, and against which Wilton competes for home buyers – are making significant investments in their schools.  I would hate for us to risk people getting the impression that we are falling behind as our neighbors improve their facilities and expand their curriculums.

That said, we recognize that the Board of Finance has a job to do.  You need to feel comfortable that our budget represents value to our taxpayers and is fiscally sound.  We carry that same responsibility and take it very seriously.  We have worked diligently for the past year to deliver a budget that accomplishes these goals.

Likly’s counterpart, BoF chair Jeffrey Rutishauser responded**:

“Some things to put a bigger lens on this, give some context. When we met here last year, we had some of the same topics, but it was a little different economic environment then. The school district put forth a 1.98 percent increase. We used a fair amount of savings from [the] previous year to [pare] that down to a 1.2 percent [increase to] the taxpayers. More people voted against that than voted in favor of that 1.2 percent [increase].

So we’re coming into this year with the viewpoint that support for the budget is 50-50. We’ve been seeing that decline [in support] for a long time.

… Between the grand list not growing very much, a big jump in debt service, and the fact that last year’s 1.2 percent tax increase [was outvoted] means we have a difficult year. We always say it’s going to be tough, but this year it really is going to be tough.

The Board of Selectmen are trying to come in with a 0-percent year-to-year increase, which has never been done before. If they get that done it gives us more breathing room. But we don’t think we’re going to get a lot of savings from the current year to apply to next year like we have [done] in the past.

This process is completely transparent. You’ve seen our mill rate model. We can see the size of the hole we have to fill.

The BoE has good reasons for their budget, and the [Board of] Selectmen have good reasons for theirs. But you add the two together, and you can’t fill the gap.

So we’re going to have some tough decisions. It’s not because we have preconceived notions or axes to grind. We just don’t have the money this year. And there are some tough decisions that have to be made, to receive the support of the majority of people that vote come May.”

*Editor’s note:  The article has been updated to better reflect that budget savings, rather than the charter authority, is used to offset proposed budget increases.  

**Editor’s note:  BoF chair Jeffrey Rutishauser asked us to clarify and expand his remarks to help readers better understand his intended message. Any words that appear in brackets were added at his request to help clarify what the BoF communicated to the BoE.