To the Editor:
With our Annual Town Meeting this week (Tuesday, May 2) coming at the end of a particularly contentious budget process, I wanted to offer a modest proposal for how we might manage school budgets more sensibly in future years.
In a recent letter, Board of Finance vice-chair Stewart Koenigsburg advocated for “reasoned, prudent” decisions on the school budget, and accused critics of ignoring the data and failing to factor in declining enrollment numbers. He’s correct that enrollment has declined, but fails to mention that the rate of inflation — 6.5% last year — greatly outstrips that decline. In fact, adjusted for inflation, we’re spending about 2% less per student than we did in 2017. While a 1% decline in student population doesn’t really translate to a 1% decline in expenses thanks to fixed costs, even by that benchmark of cost per student, our school spending is down slightly; it’s not flat, and it’s certainly not increasing.
That being said, however, his larger idea that the school budget ought to be tied to concrete numbers makes a lot more sense than basing it on resident surveys or the BOF’s own sense that one or another budget item is particularly wasteful, and it’s on that basis that I’m proposing the following: we divide the responsibility for school budget setting between the Board of Finance and the Annual Town Meeting, with the Board of Finance responsible for maintaining the school budget at its current level, and deviations from that — decreases or increases — decided on at the Annual Town Meeting.
Specifically, the Board of Finance would lay out a school budget benchmark each fall based on a combination of:
- The current rate of inflation
- Increases or decreases in enrollment, with some sort of weighting factor for fixed costs (say, 50%)
- Additional, unpredictable factors, like unexpected building expenses, or a significant increase or decrease in state funding or in special education outplacements
The first two of these could be based on a fixed formula, and the third worked out well in advance, in respectful consultation with the Board of Education and the superintendent, but with the expectation that those “unpredictable factors” would only be things that most reasonable people on both sides would agree on. The BOF would provide the BOE with a target budget based on this, and assuming the final BOE budget was close to that number, would approve that budget as a matter of course with little debate.
Meanwhile, we would amend the town charter so that instead of only being able to cut the Board of Education budget by an arbitrary amount by a voice vote, the paper Annual Town Meeting ballot would offer a menu of choices for percentage increases and decreases: anything from, say, a 3% increase to a 3% decrease compared to the Board-of-Finance-approved number, in 1% increments. If a majority of residents voted to increase the budget, it would be increased by the highest number that commanded a majority, so if, say, 30% of residents voted for 3% and 30% voted for 2%, it would be increased by 2%; if, on the other hand, a majority voted to decrease the budget, it would likewise be decreased by the highest number that commanded a majority. If neither direction received a majority, the BoF-approved budget would remain as is. And by setting out these numbers in advance, and putting them on the paper ballot, we would open up participation to all Wilton voters, not just those who can show up in person on a school night.
The important thing, however, is that this increased or decreased budget would then become the baseline that the Board of Finance starts from for the next year; if the voters decided to set that baseline 3% higher, the following year’s budget formula would be applied to that new baseline, and the schools would now receive predictable inflation/enrollment adjustments from this new level going forward. So basically, the BOF would be responsible for the technical financial end of this — maintaining the schools at the current budget level — but the question of priorities, of how much we ought to be spending on the schools, would now be in the hands of the voters.
This would replace the current system of the Board of Finance awkwardly attempting to ascertain the will of the voters through emails and surveys to something much more authoritative and reliable; the BOF would now only have to deal with cold, objective data, while the subjective questions would be decided by Wilton residents directly. Meanwhile, the Board of Education would now have a much more predictable number to base their future planning on; no longer would they have to worry about an unexpectedly high cost of living adjustment or a failed elevator or whatever forcing last-minute cuts. And voters on both sides of this debate would no longer feel like their voices were not being heard.
Since budget-cutters and budget-expanders alike make constant reference to “the will of the electorate,” I’m hoping that this proposal might be something both sides can get behind; take the acrimony out of the process and put significant changes to the school budget up to a clean, democratic vote instead.