To the Editor:
The subject of enrollment declines was featured in the local press again recently, including in an article reporting on current class sizes. What is most interesting in that article is the current average class size information (rounding fractions to the nearest whole number):
- 20 in kindergarten;
- 22 in each first grade class;
- 19 in second grade;
- 21 in third grade;
- 23 in fourth and fifth grades;
- and for 6th-8th grade and high school, class sizes from 18 to 22 with most in the low 20s.
These are not startlingly small class sizes. In fact, per pupil expenditures in Wilton are equal to or lower than those of our neighboring towns of Darien, New Canaan, Weston and Westport and have been for at least five years. The overall student/teacher ratio across Wilton’s school system has stayed remarkably constant in the 14-16 to 1 range from 1992 to date. Likewise, over the same period, the ratio of students to all staff other than special education staffers has also stayed remarkably similar at 9-10 to 1.
What that leaves is state-mandated special education. And, in fact, where the real growth in numbers is found is in special ed teachers, specialists, and paraprofessionals whose numbers have increased by staggering percentages (up to over 700-percent) in the period from 1992 to the present under the requirements of those state mandates.
Now, suppose that you whack another $800,000 out of the budget as has been recently suggested. Where is that going to come from? One can either increase class size for all students or whack down special education. If you have a child in our schools, you would naturally be very concerned about class size increase as a means of whacking $800,000. But even if you’re an empty-nester taxpayer, you should still be concerned about that because people considering moving into town look hard at class-size numbers, and most folks in the budget-whacking universe claim they don’t want to affect class size for that very reason.
Now look at the other major alternative for whacking: special education. That should concern all of us, for the moral implications, of course, but also for very practical ones. Taking $800,000 out of special education would be incredibly unwise, and doing so at this point in the budget cycle would be disastrous. The result is going to be litigation costs rising precipitously, or very expensive out-of-district placements because of lack of in-house staffing, or both. A cost-reduction recommendation in the eye of a consultant is very likely to constitute an IEP violation in the eye of a parent. So move in a cost-reduction direction only with carefully laid out plans worked out over time—not in the last week before our Annual Town Meeting (ATM). I’ve strongly encouraged that careful review be done by the Board of Education and Board of Finance consulting together beginning immediately on long-range planning to avoid every-spring brinksmanship.
I should mention that there is one other alternative to pick up significant bucks: cut sports programs substantially. If you reflect on the alternative the BoE would face if a budget-whacking resolution passes at the ATM of either unwisely increasing class size or impacting state-mandated special education in a dangerous way, you quickly realize that the major remaining alternative is whacking sports programs.
So if you care about those programs, about class size, or about special education (or all three), you’d better be at the Annual Town Meeting at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday May 3rd in the Clune Auditorium because the budget whackers will be there in the fullest force they can muster, and they will make motions to whack away. If you aren’t there to vote to prevent that, by the time you get to the ballot box on Saturday you will find yourself voting for a budget even lower than what the BoF approved when it whacked out $400,000.
And don’t be diverted by the Education Cost Sharing (ECS) battle. As I set forth in more detail in my Wilton Bulletin column this past Thursday, the explicit reserve of the Charter Authority already built into our proposed town budget exactly equals a complete zeroing out of the ECS. On top of that, the estimated undesignated funds balance at $14.1 million contains an additional $1.5 million of implicit reserves over and above the 10-percent needed to keep our important AAA bond rating.
In point of fact, the ECS battle seems to be part of incredibly ill-considered posturing by our Governor at the last minute with impact on proposed town budgets here and across our entire state and with no regard for the already underfunded mandates our state has forced upon its municipalities. Fortunately, it is now being met with a pushback of gigantic proportions from all sides, including from the Governor’s own fellow Democrats all over the state. In other words, this situation has all of the earmarks of a compromise in the making that will not zero out the ECS for us in any event. But as noted above, even if it were to do that, the budget as proposed can bear that ECS outcome without further whacking.
Westport, Darien, New Canaan, and Ridgefield have percentage budget increases two- to over five times greater than Wilton’s 1-percent, and Weston voters just last week resisted two attempts at their annual town meeting to whack the budget down, notwithstanding that Weston too is proposed to be hit hard on the ECS front. So bottom line: be there at the Annual Town Meeting on May 3 at 7:30 p.m., or we will all live to regret it!