To the Editor:
With election season behind us, and our streets now blessedly sign-free, we can now turn our attention to the other half of Wilton’s political calendar, namely, budget season.
My plea for this budget season is simple: the Board of Education should ask for more money, and the Board of Finance should give it to them.
Specifically, rather than only asking for more money in a piecemeal way — 0.5 FTE of math intervention here, a bit of new equipment for a specialty classroom there — I think the Board of Education should adopt the practice of proposing one or two major new spending initiatives a year, with the additional cost broken out separately from the regular BOE budget request, and put it to the Board of Finance and Wilton voters to decide whether or not those new programs are worth funding. This will not only create more space for school budget increases in general, but will also help address many longstanding problems with our schools, and improve our competitive position relative to neighboring districts.
There have been variations on this sort of public line-item negotiation in the past. A particularly glaring instance of it occurred last year, when the BOF grudgingly conceded the necessity of a new elevator at Wilton High School but, rather cheekily, insisted on keeping the funding for that elevator under its own control rather than trusting the BOE with it. It’s not an ideal way to run the budget process — the BOF has neither the mandate nor the qualifications to determine how best to spend our education dollars and should really keep their noses out of it — but if we’re going to have a public debate about this every year anyway, and it seems like we are, then I think that can potentially become a means not only to cut the school budget but to increase it as well: to present a positive vision for improving our schools and challenge Wilton’s voters to come through with the money for it.
For this year, I think an excellent place to start would be to follow up on a thread from last year’s Board of Education elections and launch a gifted and talented program. Not only is it sorely needed (it’s pretty demoralizing to receive a letter saying that, while the state requires us to perform gifted testing, if we do determine that your child is gifted, we’re not legally obligated to do anything extra for them, and we’re not going to), it also happens to be one of the aspects of our school system that’s most visible to the outside world, something that will come up right away when potential homebuyers are researching public school systems in Fairfield County. Even for Wilton taxpayers without any children in our schools, it’s pretty easy to draw a line from spending money on a gifted program to getting that money back many times over in the equity they hold in their very expensive houses.
Off the top of my head, some other programs like this that we might consider in future years:
- Expanded bus service, allowing for later start times at Cider Mill and shorter walking distances for everyone
- More world language options: offering at least one non-European language like Chinese ought to be table stakes in 2022; not a lot of people are getting jobs based on their knowledge of Latin or Classical Greek
- Year-round science classes at Miller-Driscoll and Cider Mill
- Engineering and computer science classes at Middlebrook
- More varied electives at Wilton High School: my high school had a semester-long class on Joyce’s “Ulysses” and another one re-enacting the Nuremberg trials; our older students are ready for a wider array of challenges and our teachers are ready to provide them
- An expanded budget for activities: our field trip and guest speaker lineup is positively embarrassing compared to neighboring districts
- Extra pay for teachers to conduct conferences outside of school hours, so we don’t have to give up a whopping four days out of our 181-day instructional calendar to accommodate those (also a good idea for teacher training days)
Wilton parents are incredibly involved in our kids’ educations, but we consistently fail to show up for our schools on the political side of things. For much too long, our schools have been playing defense regarding funding, adopting a succession of apologetic “lean budgets” and frantically asking parents to turn out for Annual Town Meetings to ensure that an unrepresentative minority of Wilton voters are not able to cut the budget further at the last minute through our horrifically undemocratic budget vote system.
If parents are given the opportunity to assert ourselves in the political arena as well — to ask for the things we want and then vote for the money to pay for them — I think we can make Wilton a much better place both for our kids and for future generations as well.