Wilton’s Board of Finance (BOF) conducted its deliberations Monday evening (April 3) on the FY2024 budget proposals and corresponding mill rate.
The deliberations follow a March 21 public hearing on the Board of Selectmen’s (BOS) proposed budget and a March 27 public hearing on the Board of Education’s (BOE) budget. (Video recordings of both public hearings and the BOF deliberations may be found on the Town website.)
In the end, the BOF reached the following resolutions:
- $89,181,692 for the BOE budget — a 2.89% year-over-year increase but a $1.4 million reduction from the $90,581,692 budget proposed by the BOE
- $34,473,595 for the BOS budget — a 1.56% year-over-year increase but a $200,000 reduction from the $34,673,595 budget proposed by the BOS
- 3.66% mill rate increase — down from the originally projected 5.69% increase
In addition to the reductions in the budget proposals, the latest mill rate calculation also reflects three adjustments that helped to bring down the mill rate increase:
- A reduction of roughly $394,000 in the debt service costs
- An increase of $250,000 in revenue projections
- An increase of roughly $67,000 in the available Excess Fund balance
The BOF resolutions to reduce the BOE and BOS budgets were not reached unanimously.
Board members Chris Stroup and Sandy Arkell voted in opposition to the resolution on the BOE budget, with the majority of members — Mike Kaelin, Stewart Koenigsberg, Rich Santosky and Matt Raimondi — voting in favor of it.
Stroup also voted to oppose the BOS budget resolution, with Arkell abstaining from that vote.
Stroup believes the reductions will lead to “degradation of services”.
“They [BOS and BOE] concluded that was the appropriate level of spending to meet the needs of the town,” Stroup said. “I’m persuaded by the work of the BOS and BOE in the development of their budgets, and I wholeheartedly support both budgets and the mill rate increase that follows from it.”
Stroup said that voters, not the BOF, should decide whether those budgets needed to be reduced.
“This is all about values,” he said. “[The BOF is] here to facilitate a process. Ultimately the town has to come out and vote. We need not preempt that, and in fact, we shouldn’t preempt that.”
Arkell added that she felt the BOE had taken a “thoughtful approach” to the budget —having already taken its own steps to reduce the budget increase from 5.99% to 4.5% — in the face of extraordinary pressures.
“We’ve been in a trending period of tight budgets, and we’re in an environment of increasing cost pressure on both of these budgets,” Arkell said, adding that she was open to considering reductions but was “troubled” by what she saw as “arbitrary” reductions in the BOE budget in order to minimize the mill rate increase.
Why $1.4 Million?
During the board’s deliberations, BOF member Santosky alluded to $1.5 million in specific cuts that Wilton Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith had identified in a memo to the BOF in the event the BOF were to call for a leaner budget increase. (GMW requested a copy of the memo, which Smith said was “not ready for publication.”)
“Kevin Smith, who I respect immensely, put together a budget, and upon understanding we were considering some reductions in that increase in budget, was able to put together a list of about $1.5 million in things he could reduce,” Santosky said.
Although Santosky said he “didn’t think we want to go that far” he suggested the board consider a $1.4 million reduction.
“Someone has to look at the overall impact of those budgets on the town and the cost to the town,” Santosky said. “The school is of course the major contributor to the budget in town. We want to fund everything 100% but I don’t think the taxpayers will support that.”
That $1.4 million is also the number cited by Kaelin in a previous BOF meeting as an amount he believed the BOE could find in savings — by eliminating the instructional coaching program.
“We are spending close to $1.4 million on coaches for teachers,” Kaelin said at the March 15 BOF meeting. “I’m troubled by this. I’ve listened and watched all the justifications for the coaching program that have been provided by the schools, and I agree with them. It’s a terrific program, and it has merit, [but] in a year when we’re looking at a 5.69% increase in taxes, do I want to pay $1.4 million for coaches for teachers? My answer is no.”
Despite the fact that the superintendent had previously told the BOF that cuts to the budget proposal would result in staff cuts, BOF Chair Michael Kaelin does not believe teacher cuts will be necessary.
“I’m so convinced [the BOE] can manage the schools well, a $1.4 million reduction is not going to make a difference,” Kaelin said.
“The bottom line for me is, if I thought [the reduction] would mean the BOE would have to eliminate a classroom teacher, I wouldn’t vote for it. But I’m absolutely convinced there is no need to cut a classroom teacher if there’s a $1.4 million reduction in the budget. If that’s where it ends up, and the BOE decides they need to eliminate a classroom teacher, your issue is with the BOE, not the BOF.”
In defending his vote on the BOE budget resolution, Kaelin said he believes recent election cycles demonstrate Wilton voters’ desire to see the BOF take action to keep budgets low and not “give the schools everything they ask for.”
“Voters expect us to take a hard look at these [budgets],” Kaelin said.
Response To The Resolutions
Immediately following the meeting, GOOD Morning Wilton reached out to the BOS and BOE leadership for their reactions to the BOF resolutions.
“The BOF reductions to the increases requested were pretty much what I expected going into the meeting,” First Selectwomen Lynne Vanderslice told GMW in an email. “I was happy prior to their discussion we were able to squeeze out some more revenues and [CFO Dawn Norton] identified the bond interest [debt service adjustment], as otherwise I expect their adjustments to the requested increases would have been larger.”
Vanderslice said she planned to propose recommendations to the Board of Selectmen at their next meeting, but she was clear what the cuts would not include.
“The recommendations won’t include staff reductions,” Vanderslice wrote. “And I’d like to avoid deferring expenditures. If we defer, it just results in a problem with next year’s budget.”
Smith and DeLuca did not respond before this story was published.
This is not unexpected, but still extremely disappointing; I’m particularly frustrated with Kaelin, who seems to have decided (quite explicitly, from his comments) to vote how he did based on the slightly higher number of people who voted for Republican than Democratic BoF candidates in 2021 (during COVID and at a low point in Democratic fortunes nationally) while ignoring the fact that he himself was elected on the Democratic ticket in 2019 by voters (including me) who did so expecting him to stand up for school budgets.
I’m hopeful that 2023 will go differently – if I remember correctly, the lowest vote getter in that year’s Board of Selectmen race is now our state representative – but I am worried that Democrats will fail once again to make the case that the Board of Finance is, thanks to its persistent habit of overstepping its mandate, effectively acting as a super-Board-of-Education, and that candidates for that race ought to be chosen primarily based on their support for schools. (I’m even reluctantly reconsidering my own disinterest in running for office, should the DTC fail to nominate a slate of candidates that would make that case, since for all of my own faults as a candidate, I can certainly point to a long clear track record of supporting school funding)
I also have to say I was disappointed by the lack of even a token sense that the BoF was making this decision based on anything more than “vibes”; I don’t believe the concept of inflation was brought up even once. It seemed like basically one of them threw out a number and the other 3 more-or-less decided they all liked the sound of it; lacking a decisive result in the survey to point to (or at least one decisive enough to override the email / in person responses) they either came up with tortured electoral excuses for their votes or simply didn’t bother justifying them at all, but there certainly wasn’t any deep thoughtful financial analysis going on here. Stroup did an excellent job of pushing back against all of their half-baked arguments, but it’s clear there was never an actual debate.
Anyway, I hope the BoE does find a way to minimize the damage, but I think the BoF is out of their minds if they think they can cut another $1.4M without losing classroom teachers (particularly since instructional coaches do, in fact, also teach in classrooms), and they’re also out of their minds if they think voters won’t blame the consequences of budget cuts on the people who did the cutting.
One member pointed out that Wilton‘s charter created the Board of Finance, which is true; towns in Connecticut are not required to have one, and last night’s meeting made a very strong case for abolishing ours.
Finally, a clear leader in Wilton, Kaelin, BOF Chair, steps up and checks the out of control spending by the BOE. His decision was based upon the facts that there is so much waste already baked into the budget over so many years. Take the BOE proposal to cut 7-9 staff @ Middle Brook that should have been cut some 10 years ago. How many other areas of the budget have been excessive for years despite declining enrollments.
All eyes will now be on Supt. Smith to see how he manages to deliver more with less and perform at his job. Does he just cut out Arts, Sports, etc… as punishment for denying his budget request or does he for once take a hard look @ the FAT that he has put in place over the years. Regardless of Smiths contract, it can be terminated for incompetence at any point in time. I suggest Smith makes the right decisions as to where to cut as all eyes will now be focused upon him. Thank God we have a BOF or the BOE would be taking 10% annual increases for themselves every year. Congratulations to the BOF! The Buck Stops here!
Any particular fat you’d actually like to suggest here? If there are $1.4M worth of waste you think they can easily cut, I’m sure they’d love to hear about it. (And don’t say “coaches” since most of them also teach in classrooms)
Here is an opportunity for you and others who supported the higher spending to put your money where your mouth is. The members of the Board of Finance who voted for a lesser increase in tax burden (in line with surveys and past votes) have all pledged to write a check to the Wilton Board of Education for their share (and potentially more) of those cuts. If every resident who wants to support the schools does the same, we can all benefit from full tax deductibility of those charitable donations (as opposed to no deduction in excess of $10,000 for real estate taxes, and zero deduction if your deductions are not itemized), and the ability to change the outcome, not by simply complaining incessantly, but by actually doing something constructive. Write a check for your share to the Board of Education. Encourage other people to write a check for their share… roughly 1%+ of their property tax bills… or more as you have stated you would have supported a higher spend for the schools. If we can encourage those who WANT to support more spending at the schools, and can afford to make the contribution to do so, we can make a significant difference currently rather than in the abstract. Here is something that you are clearly passionate about, so help the schools raise the money voluntarily and with full tax deductibility. You can do the same for the Wilton Library which gets substantial funding from the Board of Selectman budget. GMW has the ability to make this recommendation as well, and so does the PTA. I have committed to personally support these institutions, notwithstanding the fact that I felt compelled to vote the wishes of the majority of the town, and by the way, if I thought it was feasible, I’d support reducing property taxes more if I had any confidence that constituents would prefer to make tax deductible contributions. rather than pay higher non tax deductible property taxes. Let’s see if you and others will do something constructive rather than simply being a gadfly in GMW. Commit to write a check, commit to encourage as many others as you can to write a check. I would like to remain with the optimism that perhaps those who say they’d support the schools and library will do so voluntarily, with the full benefit of a tax deduction, or perhaps contribute even more with the same after tax cost. I am hopeful that people won’t make excuses as to why they won’t contribute if they were willing to pay higher taxes. Use your significant energies to work on fund raising.
Editor’s note: As a rule, GOOD Morning Wilton does not publish editorials, endorsements or recommend anything regarding municipal topics we cover. It’s been our policy since day one.
This is a very revealing comment; I’m actually rather delighted that you put down your desire to, effectively, privatize Wilton’s schools in such stark, obvious terms.
I don’t think most voters – even most Republican voters – would support anything remotely this extreme, and for you to go on the record with this as the ranking Republican on the BoF is an absolute gift to your opponents; perhaps your desire to gloat at my expense got the better of you.
If all that my “gadflying” accomplishes is baiting you into bringing these sentiments out into the open where voters can grapple with the full ramifications of them, it will have been time very well spent.
Stewart’s suggestion makes sense and is not at all different from what we’ve been told about Open Choice, where a few citizens of Wilton have promised to step in and donate their own money to ensure that the cost of participation is neutral to the town.
Hah, no. The only way those are the same is that they would both entail raising money for things many Republicans want to destroy.
Comments are closed.