The Board of Finance (BOF) held a special meeting on Saturday morning, May 13 (a rescheduled regular meeting) in which board members shared their individual assessments of the 2023 Annual Town Meeting (ATM) and Adjourned Vote.
When the budgets recommended by the BOF passed by a healthy margin and with robust voter turnout, several board members saw the vote result as validation of the board’s move to cut $1.4 million from the BOE’s budget request and reduce the mill rate increase.
However, in other respects, the outcome of the budget process is not being celebrated as a win for the town, even among BOF members.
BOF Chair Michael Kaelin said his main concern was that the contentious budget process may have soured the pool of prospective board candidates, especially after some residents directed harsh criticisms at the BOF during the ATM.
“If we do not correct what happened at that [Annual] Town Meeting, there’ll be nobody sitting on this board to do this work,” Kaelin said.
But first, the board had to correct and attend to a host of other concerns.
Under pressure from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) rules, the board had to disclose problematic internal emails which revealed that members had discussed board business outside of their public meetings.
Additional issues have arisen as BOF Vice Chair Stewart Koenigsberg engaged in public debates with residents outside of board meetings, frequently on GOOD Morning Wilton‘s website — disregarding the advice of the town’s legal counsel.
Board Chair Kaelin and others raised questions about BOF member Chris Stroup‘s move to encourage voters to vote against the budget proposed by the board, including in an advertising campaign on GMW.
The board’s most recent meeting and internal emails revealed significant fractures within the board and members’ widespread frustration with the FY’24 budget process — including some open disdain for residents who (in at least one board member’s view) “don’t know anything.”
With BOF members raising strategic issues — such as how voters access information to evaluate the town and school budget proposals, who is responsible for disseminating the information voters need to make informed decisions, and how board members should conduct themselves, among other questions — this story traces how the BOF members reviewed the most recent budget process and steps they took leading up to the ATM.
This story quotes BOF members extensively, from a compilation of public meetings, BOF member comments on GMW stories, and emails to GMW staff. For the complete discussions of the issues reported in this story, recordings of the May 2 Annual Town Meeting and the May 13 BOF meeting are available on the Town website.
“The Vote Speaks For Itself”
Kaelin kicked off the May 13 discussion by expressing a sense of relief with the result of the town vote.
“The best way to describe my feelings after the vote is relieved,” Kaelin said. “And what I was relieved about is that the people who voted at the [Annual] Town Meeting this year voted the way I would’ve expected them to vote.”
Kaelin saw the results as an affirmation of the BOF’s decisions, stating that the BOF actions on the budget were aligned with the “really smart and successful” majority of Wilton residents who voted to support the budget, and the board did not need to concern themselves with the pushback from the minority of residents who opposed the budget reductions.
“I’ve been watching votes in Wilton for 25 years. I think I have a pretty good idea of how people vote in Wilton,” Kaelin began. “And to understand how people vote in Wilton, you need to understand who lives here. The vast majority of people who live here are really smart and they’re really successful. It’s by definition, it’s the cost of admission to get into the town. It’s what’s so special about this place… And also by definition, people who are smart and successful make decisions based on reasons and facts. They don’t make decisions based on emotions and personal attacks. They pay attention and they’re well informed.”
“Our [BOF] vote demonstrated that we represented what the majority of the people wanted,” Kaelin emphasized. “We [BOF] don’t really need to concern ourselves with people who say we’re incompetent or we don’t know what we’re doing. That’s just an insult to the people that elected us.”
Kaelin later changed his characterization of the “well-informed” voters, and said the vast majority probably hadn’t studied the budgets at all — instead, they “trusted” the board members they had elected.
“The vast majority of people that voted to approve this budget did not vote to approve this budget because they studied the data or they studied the argument. They voted to approve this budget because they trusted us to study the data and do the research on things. That’s what they elected us to do,” Kaelin said.
Kaelin also said this year’s ATM may have alienated potential BOF candidates.
“If we do not correct what happened at that [Annual] Town Meeting, there’ll be nobody sitting on this board to do this work,” he said.
“I’m not exaggerating,” he added, citing a call by some community members for charter reform on the budget approval process as ‘laughable’.
“As someone who knows what it takes to put a charter commission together and revise the charter and how much work and people and hours it takes… If we treat people the way we were treated at that [Annual] Town Meeting, there’s not going to be anyone to do it. I mean, I was laughing. Who are you going to get to serve on a charter commission? Do you have any idea how much work that is and how much time that takes?”
Board member Matt Raimondi agreed with Kaelin that the town vote validated the BOF’s actions.
“I think the vote stands for itself. There was complete vindication of what we did,” Raimondi stated. “We had the highest turnout here since 2004… And within that vote, 64%, which is among the highest in recent years, voted in favor of the budget. The lowest vote was the ‘no, too low’ vote — that’s gotten a lot of airtime. I don’t quite understand why.”
[Editor’s note: GMW included the significance of the ‘no, too low’ vote in our analysis of the 2023 ATM because, at 14.22%, it was dramatically higher than in the past 20 years, when in most years that vote floated somewhere between 0%-2%. While 14.22% was still a minority of the total vote, the difference from past years as well as the number of voters who spoke out about voting “no, too low” was noteworthy.]
“This Board of Finance represented the will of the people. It did,” Raimondi repeated.
Board member Chris Stroup (who voted in opposition to the board’s resolutions to reduce the BOE and BOS budget requests), argued to the contrary, that the ATM vote offered proof that residents are, in fact, willing to support budgets with mill rate increases that are higher than what the BOF surveys have suggested they would tolerate.
Referring to the survey data from 2023 and previous years that suggested the vast majority of respondents were not willing to accept mill rate increases over 2%-2.5%, Stroup made the distinction that that 77% of voters supported a mill rate increase of at least 3.66% in the actual town vote. Stroup said that finding should tell the board not to feel constrained by the survey, and instead let voters decide whether to reduce budgets.
“We’re supposed to follow the charter. We are not the legislative body,” Stroup said. “We present the information to the town and the town decides what to do. I don’t think we have to vote at the Board of Finance assuming what the town is going to do at the ATM, because then we wouldn’t have to have an ATM.”
“It’s perfectly reasonable for members of the Board of Finance to vote a way which is different from, arguably, the information we received in surveys and prior votes. Because none of it is dispositive, it’s directional,” Stroup said.
The Issue of Trust
Much of the post-ATM indignation expressed by the BOF was in response to the residents at the Town Meeting who said they did not trust the board to increase the BOE budget if a “no, too low” vote materialized. Some had implied that even if the “no, too low” votes caught on, the BOF might be vindictive and cut the budget further anyway.
Even First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice interjected at one point during the ATM to assure residents she would not expect such action from the BOF.
At the April 20 BOE meeting, Wilton Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith had urged residents to vote in favor of the budget and not vote “no, too low”
“I’m hoping everybody comes out and votes ‘Yes,’ to support this budget. I don’t support the ‘no, too low approach.’ I think ‘No’ could be really bad,” he said during the meeting.
That fear could have come from how Wilton combines the ‘No, too low,’ and ‘no, too high’ votes when tabulating the budget vote. Historically, the “no, too high” vote has outnumbered the “no, too low” vote, and if the total “no” votes forced a return of the budget to the BOF, Smith feared the “too low” vote might not be dominant enough to sway the BOF from further reductions — though he stopped short of saying the BOF would act in a manner that totally contradicted the vote.
“I think it could be worse. And I do think that we saw — for whatever stock you put in, the feedback we got through the Board of Finance survey — people are concerned about their taxes… I just don’t want to be in a situation where we have to take another X-amount of dollars out of the budget,” he told the BOE.
Heated… or Hostile?
Kaelin made several references to the tenor of resident comments at the ATM which he considered offensive and overtly hostile to members of the BOF.
“When I say this was the worst [ATM] I’ve ever attended, it’s not hyperbole,” Kaelin said. “I could not vote after that town meeting, because of the hostility directed to me personally.”
Kaelin attributed some of the perceived hostility at the ATM to BOE Chair Ruth DeLuca‘s presentation, which highlighted how the school budget proposal had been trimmed during the budget process and what the impacts were — something Kaelin called unprecedented and said resulted in an undue shift of blame onto the BOF.
“The room was full of fear and all they [BOE] did was light a fire with that,” Kaelin said. “But I’m not going to get into a fight with the Board of Education about this. That’s the problem, we’re all fighting with each other instead of working with each other.”
Vice Chair Stewart Koenigsberg was also vocal about some residents at the ATM, whose comments he described as “horrible.” Both Kaelin and Koenigsberg characterized the speakers as being on the fringes of voter sentiment, with an outsize presence in the public discourse.
“The same small group of people shows up, basically with no data, and insults this whole group,” Koenisgberg said, adding that “these nasty people have as much time as they want, to say nothing. They insulted us over and over again.” [Speakers at the ATM were limited to three minutes.]
Some BOF members seemed taken aback by residents who expressed “disgust” or similar emotions, and by several moments of spontaneous applause and callouts from the audience, which were not allowed during the meeting.
Raimondi echoed Kaelin’s point that the atmosphere made him too uncomfortable to attend the vote after the meeting.
“Some of what’s out there, it’s triggering, some might say. A lot of it is personal attacks,” said Raimondi. “[Kaelin] mentioned hostility at the [Annual] Town Meeting. My wife and I had significant hostility directed our way. We did not vote that night either, as a result of that.”
Raimondi, who led the board’s effort on the survey, may have felt the brunt of the criticism some residents have expressed about the survey, including a handful of comments at the ATM that the survey was “disingenuous” and one remark calling a key survey question about willingness to pay tax increases “stupid.”
Raimondi defended the survey quality but said he was open to revisiting it in the future. Board member Rich Santosky also defended the survey, reminding other board members it was a group effort.
“I think that for people to criticize [the survey] is wrong, because it was a way we tried to reach out to people,” Santosky said. “We put it together as a board. Collectively we tried to reach out to people, and I don’t think anyone here was left out of that process.”
Raimondi added that the board did not disregard other resident input, like public hearings and emails. In his role as BOF secretary, Raimondi was the person who also screened the emails the BOF received during the budget process.
“We took that into account. People did come to speak to us at the board hearings and we listened to them. That’s been true every year, people always come up and speak. That’s great — they’re passionate. They care about it. But to say that the board didn’t listen to them, well that’s just simply not true.”
Multiple board members frequently used the term “misinformation” as a problem they saw in the FY’24 budget process.
Santosky offered one example of what he called “rampant misinformation” throughout the budget process: a quote included in GMW‘s coverage of the ATM.
GMW‘s story quoted a resident who expressed her concern that budget reductions could jeopardize mental health supports for students. She used the term “interventionist” — which refers to academic support — to refer to support her son received, and was later corrected by the superintendent.
Santosky’s mention of that quote as “misinformation” — and board members’ other references to misinformation — raised questions about what opinions and views are legitimate, and whether the term refers to flawed reasoning by residents (misinformed) or the deliberate spread of false information in the media.
Santosky also said he was bothered by what he considered misrepresentations of his position on the reduction of $1.4 million from the BOE budget request.
In an email exchange with GMW following the May 13 meeting, Santosky said the mischaracterization came primarily from Steve Hudspeth’s April 26 Letter to the Editor.
Hudspeth’s letter (which was in response to another Letter to the Editor from BOF Chair Kaelin), focused primarily on Kaelin‘s reasoning behind the budget cuts, i.e., instructional coaches. Hudpeth’s letter indirectly referred to Santosky as one of “three other BOF members” who also voted to reduce the budget, but without explicitly citing the other board members’ rationale for their votes:
“Mr. Kaelin has made it clear that he voted as he did specifically over the matter of teacher coaches. That comes as no real surprise since the amount of reduction in the BOE’s proposal — that he and three other members of the BOF voted to approve over the strenuous objection of the two other BOF members — specifically equals the annual cost of the coaching program,” Hudspeth wrote.
Santosky believed Hudspeth made a clear linkage, and that it was wrong. He further denied he ever supported eliminating instructional coaches.
“This has never been a big issue for me as it isn’t a decision that the BOF has to make. The Superintendent and BOE are responsible for what happens or fails to happen in the schools, and decisions such as the number and distribution of coaches is theirs to make,” Santosky wrote in an email to GMW.
At the time the BOF took that action, GMW reported in full detail on Santosky’s position on the $1.4 million cut.
But of all the board members, Koenigsberg has been perhaps the most outspoken on the subject of accurate information. In addition to what he saw as misinformation, Koenigsberg believed this year’s budget process suffered from “misdirection” and the “absence of data.”
He spoke at great length at multiple meetings about what he sees as a critical issue for the board and the town: not enough data understood by voters. He also wrote extensively on the topic, such as in emails to GMW, a Letter to the Editor, and frequent comments on GMW stories.
“A Lot More Data”
Koenigsberg was especially critical of residents who, in his view, were not following “an intelligent data-driven approach” or who made “ridiculous empty ‘data free’ claims.”
“The problem is that there is a small but vocal minority who attempt to derail reasonable efforts by reasonable people,” Koenigsberg wrote in a comment on a recent GMW story.
He criticized “all who disregarded all available data and three prior surveys and rudely and relentlessly made personal attacks on the skills, judgment and worst of all, attacks on the integrity of the BOF members who clearly were steadfast in best represent[ing] the views of the overwhelming majority of the town.”
After a number of other comments by Koenigsberg about “data” missing from voters’ opinions on the FY’24 budgets, GMW reached out to him to find out what data or metrics he felt were not known or understood by voters.
“How much time do you have?” he asked, followed by a long list of school budget-related data — along with a call for independent analysis.
“There is just a lot more data from the BOE and BOF, which should be made available with independent and unbiased commentary, including multi-year views, and trends over time, with multiple data points each over multiple years, on total and detailed relevant line item costs, including BOE staff levels, including data on trends of student-facing verses not, student population data over time and projected, comparisons to surrounding towns and CT DOE and EdSight data over period of time… all presented with independent commentary concerning trends over time, triangulation amongst data points and how we stack up [versus] other towns.”
Koenigsberg has described “a vacuum of information” and said the BOF did not have “a forum for actually communicating [data] to the public,” that served to inform BOF decisions. He added, “That was never apparent. And we do get a lot of flack from a limited number of vocal people in the town who accuse us of not doing our job or accuse us of misrepresenting facts.”
When GMW asked Koenigsberg why he believes the BOF’s public meetings, the Town website, and the BOF presentation at the ATM are not providing the BOF a forum in which to share the data he considers critical, he responded that it is GMW‘s job.
“It is the role of the press to deliver that information independently and without any bias whatsoever,” Koenigsberg wrote in an email to GMW. [Editor’s note: GMW has reported every BOF meeting in full detail during the entire FY’24 budget process including any data that was presented.]
Of concern, he also said that “other town boards” (presumably the BOE) were misleading the public.
“There is also a need to work much more closely with other town boards to assure that inaccurate or misleading data and/or comments in presentations are eliminated,” he wrote in an email to GMW.
“… if they [BOE] claim, year after year, that only the gross budget increase percentage is relevant, as was stated on one of the charts in Town Meetings, credibility is lost if claims are repeatedly made that the situation is dire, while coming in so high in spending per pupil compared to other towns with excellent top-rated schools like New Canaan and Darien.”
The BOE presentation did include data beyond the total budget increase. BOE Chair Ruth DeLuca specifically highlighted the per-pupil spending data to which Koenigsberg often refers, from two data sources, compared to all schools in Wilton’s District Reference Group (DRG) — and showed Wilton’s per-pupil expenditure tends to fall in the middle of the DRG. Wilton’s per-pupil spending has been higher than Ridgefield and New Canaan, but consistently lower than Westport and Weston. Data sources differ on Wilton’s per-pupil spending compared to Darien.
Per-pupil spending is one metric; budget growth is another — though one Koenisgberg does not consider compelling. At the ATM, DeLuca presented data that shows Wilton’s budget is historically the leanest in the DRG.
In a similar way that First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice has emphasized the Board of Selectmen’s low average budget growth over the past eight years, DeLuca presented BOE budget growth data over a similar timeframe. It shows the BOE budget has averaged 1.27% annual budget growth, with total budget growth of 13% since the 2013-2014 school year — essentially half the growth rate across other districts in the DRG.
That won’t change with the Wilton budget that just passed. DeLuca also presented the fact that Wilton’s 2.89% BOE budget increase — reflecting the $1.4 million cut to the initial request — was the lowest proposed increase in the DRG.
Koenisgberg says the total budget is a less-relevant measure because of Wilton’s declining enrollment. According to EdSight, all of the schools in the DRG have had declining enrollment since 2013-2014. The levels vary, with Ridgefield having the greatest decline, followed by Wilton, and New Canaan down only nominally.
Lowering The Temperature
BOF member Sandy Arkell, who voted in opposition to the board’s $1.4 million cut from the BOE budget request, had a different view of what the board’s takeaway should be from the ATM. Her takeaway was that some residents were disappointed with the board’s performance, for failing in its duty to deliberate and communicate a clear rationale for budget cuts.
“I’m going to try to take the emotional temperature down just a little bit,” she said after several board members had spoken during the May 13 meeting. “Despite my vote or my position personally, I did in that [ATM] meeting feel like we failed as a board. I think that’s the feedback I heard. I think the town was disappointed… we failed in our job.”
“To hear Stewart say that we didn’t have the data… We did. We did have the data. Did we drill down deep enough into the analytics that were there and present it well? I think the failure was in our budget deliberations. We did not deliberate as a board. We did a round-robin around the table, right? The vote was done in about 10 minutes. I was willing to sit here at this board and talk about tradeoffs… anytime you go into budgets, we all know that as finance people or as business owners, there’s all kind of wants that come up, and the decision has to be made on what are the priorities.”
Arkell argued those deliberations on tradeoffs didn’t occur.
“I was willing to debate it, but we did land at a number that was $1.4 million [BOE budget] and the other $200,000 [BOS budget], there was no deliberation about it. And I think that’s why the town is mad there. We didn’t do our job to deliberate and we did not present the facts or the analytics to support our view as a board.”
Arkell also defended the facts in DeLuca’s BOE budget presentation, including the budget timeline Kaelin had criticized. “As it relates to what the Board of Education did, whether they were right or wrong, at the end of the day, they did present facts.”
“We should take public feedback to consider how we do our job better next year,” Arkell concluded.
Arkell also held the position that board members — namely Koenigsberg — should not engage in public debate outside of the board meetings. In an email she sent to her fellow board members on May 8, Arkell outlined a policy recommendation against such public debate — but email communication outside of a public meeting runs afoul of FOIA rules. Arkell’s email had prompted a lengthy board-wide reply email from Koenigsberg — also a FOIA violation. (At Saturday’s meeting, Arkell apologized for the error, which she said was unintentional.)
In her email, Arkell proposed a policy on board member communications in an effort “to uphold the respect and dignity of the office”:
“In this case Stewart, you’re already RIGHT. Your proposed budget was passed and likely as a result of more voters who share your view and potentially also voted you to this office expected of you. I’m not sure I see the incremental benefit” of continuing to engage in debate with the public. “It seems to only fan the flames. I think the vote stands for itself.
“My recommendation is that we refrain from this practice if only to uphold the respect and dignity of the office,” Arkell continued. “I can see where our entire board or our town government could be jeopardized in the future, and we need to think about future candidates. If we want to maintain stable government who works for the best interest of Wilton, then we should be working in a bipartisan fashion and really deliberate authentically to avoid these virulent public debates. We’ll always have differences of opinion and times when public opinion appears misinformed. If we engage in the public debate, it could deter potential future interest in running for these elected positions.”
Kaelin agreed that board members should not engage in debate with residents who post comments on social media or in the news media — not for fear of losing respect for the board, but because those residents “don’t know anything.”
“I think we’ve learned from this experience that there really is no benefit or value to engaging with these commentators. All they’ve really demonstrated is they don’t know anything,” Kaelin said.
Beyond The Board: Reelections and Resignations
Kaelin, who has already announced he will not seek reelection when his term ends later this year, took a surprising step at the May 13 meeting to advocate for the reelection of certain board members.
“From this time forward, my highest priority on this board is seeing that Richard Santosky, Matt Raimondi, and Sandy Arkell run for reelection. Because if people like those three people don’t do this, none of this is going to get done. We need good people to serve on these boards,” Kaelin said.
Chris Stroup quickly responded.
“I don’t think the Charter says we should spend time as a board ensuring that we have certain people running for reelection,” Stroup said.
Kaelin asserted that Stroup’s decision as a private citizen to launch a “Vote no, too low” campaign (in part with paid advertisements on GOOD Morning Wilton) not only fueled the rancor in the public discourse but should have come with his resignation from the board.
‘The biggest thing that we have done wrong as a board is act as individuals and not as a board,” Kaelin said. “We have to act by voting. We each get a vote, but the decision is the collective vote of the board… even if you voted against it, it’s a board decision.”
“A big part of the problem that was created here was you [Stroup] starting your own personal ad campaign,” Kaelin continued. “You lent legitimacy and credence to the people who were attacking us.”
“I would respectfully suggest, if any member ever felt so strongly against what the board voted that they had to start their individual campaign against what the board voted on, they should resign from the board,” Kaelin said.
“Much like others write in letters to the editors and express their opinions, I just expressed my opinion a different way,” Stroup said.
“We could decide, I guess, as a board that we’re going to have no communications outside of the board meetings expressing our views. I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing,” Stroup said. “My sense is it’s not a great thing, because it just reduces the ability to tell people what we think.”