To the Editor:
I write on the subject of the Board of Finance’s budget recommendations to be forthcoming early this week. Let me first say how positive I found both town meetings this past week! The one on the Board of Education Budget Monday night had the Middlebrook Auditorium filled to capacity, while the Board of Selectmen Budget one Tuesday night was much more sparsely attended. The presentations made by the boards were excellent, and the quality of the public comment (and total numbers commenting, especially at the Education Budget meeting) was truly outstanding: intelligent, illuminating, thoughtful, and really, really civil.
I’m writing at this moment because we all know that the ball is now in the Board of Finance’s court and that it faces tough decisions. That being said, the undesignated funds balance account (in effect, the retained earnings of our town) of $14 million is over $1 million more than the 10-percent needed to preserve our highly valuable (in terms of lower interest rates) AAA bond rating, and the BoF had earlier indicated to BoE an objective of seeing a 1.1-percent budget increase. The BoE came in with 1.27-percent even as other towns in this area are having their school budgets go up by multiples of our BoE’s proposed percentage increase notwithstanding that they face the same enrollment projections as Wilton does.
So in fairness, a cut of around $100,000 might be in order to reduce the proposed school budget by around 0.1-percent to yield that stated increase objective of 1.1%. By contrast, however, a $1 million cut this year is not fair and in my view is very unwise, nor does it comport with what the BoF heard from the vast majority of the many who spoke at the packed BoF/BoE presentation on Monday night. In fact, a cut of $1 million now is going to be really destructive, especially after the BoE had already made cuts in other areas to get down to a 1.27-percent increase in its budget despite a collective-bargaining mandated 3-percent increase in salaries.
“…a $1 million cut this year is not fair and in my view is very unwise, nor does it comport with what the BoF heard from the vast majority of the many who spoke at the packed BoF/BoE presentation on Monday night.”
This year has been termed by BoF chair Jeff Rutishauser a “perfect storm year” of unfortunate financial timing for our town; at times like this, it makes sense to use available excess funds balances to mitigate the perfect storm’s impact. I’d really encourage the BoE and BoF to begin long-range talks now addressed to the future in a very strategic way that does justice to large issues without mandating cuts in this proposed Education Budget with the exhortation, “We know you can find the savings somewhere.”
One area at least some members of the BoF seemed to have focused on for immediate reduction is special education, believing that a study that is very complimentary of our schools’ performance in that area also claims there are efficiencies to be realized. The problem is that “efficiencies” in one beholder’s eyes can be a decline in services in another’s, and as I said at the meeting on Monday night, proposing the making of significant cuts in special ed that are not carefully thought through (i.e., made a month before the Annual Town Meeting) not only has major moral implications but also has immediate financial ones for our town in terms of litigation over IEPs in which the law very much favors the child over the school district and in terms of reduced on-site staffing that can cause very expensive out-of-district placements. This is not an area into which one wanders cavalierly by fiat without occasioning huge potential issues regarding care provision and consequent exposure of our town to large financial liability that is the antithesis of the purpose of budget cuts.
Use of $1 million from the excess over 10-percent in the undesignated funds balance in the way I mentioned above accords with the astute observation of WHS student Cameron Berg. He spoke at the Education Budget meeting on Monday night of our town’s long-term investment in our schools, one that is eroded if not properly maintained. Jeopardizing that long-term investment is a fundamental concern that the enthusiastic and determined audience overflowing the Education Budget meeting on Monday made clear it is not prepared to accept.