To the Editor:
Contrary to what you may have heard, I can assure you Feb. 9 is not a critical date for you to express your views to the Board of Finance on the Board of Education budget. As the chair of the Board of Finance, I assure you that you will have plenty of opportunities between now and April 3, when we begin our budget deliberations, to express your views to the Board of Finance. The Board of Education has not even voted yet on the budget to present to the Board of Finance, and the Feb. 9 meeting is simply intended to be a forum for the Board of Education and the Board of Finance to exchange information with each other before the Board of Education votes on its budget on Feb 16.
If you are not familiar with the budget process, here is a timeline and non-exclusive list of opportunities for you to express your views on the Board of Education budget to the Board of Finance:
Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023: Board of Education votes at its meeting on the budget to present to the Board of Finance
Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023: Board of Finance Regular Meeting
Tuesday, March 14, 2023: Board of Finance Regular Meeting
Monday, March 27, 2023: Public Hearing on Board of Education Budget
Monday, April 3, 2023: Board of Finance Begins Budget Deliberations
Thursday, April 11, 2023: Last day for Board of Finance to vote on budget to present to the Annual Town Meeting
Tuesday, May 2, 2023: Annual Town Meeting
A public hearing on the Board of Selectmen budget, which we also encourage everyone to attend, will be held on Tuesday, March 21, 2023. [Editor’s note: this hearing date was moved from the previously-scheduled March 28.]
Please note this is merely a list of public meetings at which you can make public comments and this is not the only way to express your views to the Board of Finance. You are always welcome and encouraged to express your views in writing to the Board of Finance by writing to via email. In addition, the Board of Finance will be launching a survey concerning financial issues during the week of March 6, which we encourage everyone to complete and return to us.
Also contrary to what you may have heard, there are no preordained conclusions on the Board of Finance. The Board of Finance is well-balanced demographically and politically. The main thing we have in common is a sincere desire to make the best financial decisions for everyone who lives and works in Wilton and you help us do that by expressing your views to us in whatever manner you choose. In expressing your views, please keep in mind that the most impactful comments are the most informed comments. Please take the time to learn not just about the school budget, but about all of the needs and wants we have in this town, and the resources available to provide for them. A wealth of information is available on the Wilton Public Schools’ website and the Town of Wilton’s website. The more you learn and communicate to us, the better decisions we will make. Lastly, please understand we are all in this together. We all love this town and want what is best for all of us. We look forward to hearing from you.
Board of Finance Chair
Would this survey that you are encouraging everyone to complete be the same survey that you so proudly stated you “didn’t put any weight on” at the April 12th Board of Finance meeting last year (before quickly walking it back to say the survey was not what made up your decision)? Do you intend to give the responses any weight this year? If yes, I am curious to know what has changed in your mind. If no, why are you encouraging people to spend time completing it?
Likewise, will the emails that you are saying you encourage and welcome be given any weight? Or will emails in support of the Board of Education’s budget be dismissed if certain BOF members feel that many of those emails sound “exactly the same,” as also suggested in that same meeting last year?
I sincerely hope that you encourage those who serve on the Board of Finance to “take the time to learn” and be informed, just as you do the other residents of Wilton. As of the February 10th Joint Meeting of the Board of Education and the Board of Finance last year, one of your fellow board members lacked complete knowledge of the fact that Miller and Driscoll are, indeed, one school (and at that point had been merged for over 10 years).
Thank you for the timeline of meetings.
The Board of Finance reviews budgets and numbers. The reason for this group to exist is to provide a check and balance, as well as to provide financial expertise …. for free… to the town. The group is largely populated by financial experts who volunteer, and do the best we can to evaluate data. The most pertinent data for the town school system is spending levels, trends, comparisons to other towns’ education per student spending, as well as demographic factors such as school population size and trends, as well as affordability factors for residents. This data is available in a variety of forms. Wilton First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice sends out a monthly update on a variety of topics. Concerned residents should all subscribe through the town website. For the month of January 2023 she sent out a series of questions and answers, full of data. To summarize, Wilton spends roughly the same amount per student as surrounding towns. Wilton residents earn less on average than surrounding towns, with the exception of Ridgefield. Wilton education spending per student has increased by roughly 4% per year over the last ten years (more than double the the rate of inflation) , equal or higher than all surrounding towns except for Ridgefield which increased by 5% on average, but still spends less than Wilton. The student population in Wilton has dropped by 14% over 10 years, a rate only exceeded by Ridgefield which dropped 15%. Student population in every nearby town has dropped over the same period. Connecticut spends more per pupil than any state in the US. Our region spends among the highest in the state of Connecticut. In addition, in past surveys, while many support higher spending, the survey results indicated that the majority were unwilling to increase their taxes by more that 2%, and at that level, only with significant improvement in the schools. This year the student population decreased by 71 students and is forecast to drop again next year. Another survey will be conducted this year. As an organization focused on data, and unable to vote on individual line items in the education budget, the Board of Finance attempts to balance desires for more spending, with willingness to spend, and you can understand that the data added to the broader town’s peoples’ responses on spending, are more compelling than communications that do not cite any data whatsoever and are, at times, cut and pasted from another source. Sheer numbers of letters does not indicate a majority view as well as broader surveys, in my view, nor do they negate the views expressed with more granularity in survey results where everyone has an equal opportunity to express their views. Many of those who believe in a measured, thoughtful and competitive education budget do so with no benefit to themselves in that they don’t have children in the schools, but they continue to support exceptional schools at spending levels roughly equal to the highest spending school systems in the country. Many of those people are highly supportive of maintaining funding for Wilton schools to remain highly competitive. If parents understand the data which Lynne cited and I augmented herein, at a high level, and still feel that the educational outcomes are unsatisfactory or otherwise below similarly spending school systems, then that begs the question as to whether the funding is being utilized in the best possible fashion to maximize educational outcomes. As a taxpayer, you should demand the best outcome for your dollars spent, and that would be a far better exercise than broad brush, cut and paste letters “supporting the budget” at any level. Wilton spends more per student than New Canaan, and roughly the same as Darien, yet those schools have results superior to Wilton in certain standardized test areas, especially math. As I said, I deal with data and numbers, and do not pretend to have mastered the pedagogy of education, but even as a laymen, I would prefer to see more doers…. student facing teachers in math, as an example, rather than allocating those funds to teachers’ coaches, or administrative staff. I feel that parents in Wilton are being programmed to blame the Board of Finance for any shortcoming in their perception of educational outcomes, and such scapegoating is unjustified due to the intellectual laziness in its approach, but also completely unproductive. If your best case is that you outspend all surrounding towns, but spend those additional funds in less impactful roles, educational outcomes may remain the same.
So I would ask that before you write letters to the editor of GMW, citing excerpts out of context, or accusing unpaid volunteers who are doing their best to balance the needs and wishes of all, please take some time to identify specific issues and ask for specific improvements, and understand trade-offs. That would be a helpful exercise.
I’ve already addressed your arguments about Wilton’s per-student spending / lack of wealth in another comment, so I shan’t bother doing so again here, but 3 other points:
1. The idea that school funding somehow represents an act of charity on the part of childless people towards mooching ungrateful parents is incredibly obnoxious, and is unlikely to win you much sympathy from parents, or, for that matter, anybody who takes 5 seconds to think about who’s going to be performing their future heart surgery.
2. Having some actual expertise in this area, I can tell you that an unweighted, unsecured, mass-emailed survey has about as much statistical significance as a survey limited to people named Michael Love; it’s certainly no more nuanced or rigorous than counting emails.
I’m also a little unclear on why the Board of Finance feels it so important to survey Wilton voters when we’re already being surveyed every year in our Annual Town Meeting ballots; if you want to find out whether Wilton residents think a budget is too high, pass the budget and wait to see if enough of them are motivated to reject it for being too high to send it back to you to reduce it. (Since you defended Latin in an earlier comment I’m sure you’re familiar with the phrase Qui tacet consentiret, “silence gives consent”, so memorably deployed in “A Man For All Seasons”)
Or you could look at the other way we’re regularly surveyed, our municipal elections; the very same election that put you in your Board of Finance seat also put a 4-2 Democratic majority on the Board of Education, and I don’t think the voters did that because they wanted to see school budgets slashed.
3. Finally, on the subject of expertise: even if I were to grant that the BoF were all experts in determining an appropriate funding level for our schools based on the state of the economy and resident finances and neighboring towns and all the rest, that’s only one half of the equation; there’s also the question of what our schools *need*, and how acutely they need it, and I daresay Ms. Sclafani knows more about that than any member of the Board of Finance.
The parent emails saying we want the school budget funded are not uninformed – however eager you may be to come up with an excuse for dismissing them – but come from people who are intimately aware with the strengths and failings of the school system; we may not all have the time to dig into every specific budget line we want expanded, but we see areas of need all the time. (I could list dozens of examples myself, from little things like the sorry state of classroom graded reader collections in Miller-Driscoll to big ones like the early start time at Cider Mill)
Laying out a school budget is a balancing act between needs and means; those of us advocating for higher budgets are simply saying the balance ought to be tilted more towards the former, and that position is every bit as valid and informed as yours.
To the Editor
We have lived in Wilton for over 50 years. Our children were born here. One of our town’s enduring charms is how “The more things change, the more they stay the same”. When it comes to budgets the local media prints a headline regarding the budget increase for the next year. The result is an outcry from some residents about the size of the increase, some just against it, others praising it, the rest possibly accepting it. We don’t know, not enough residents vote. The largest part of the budget is our school system, so it draws the most scrutiny and emotion. However, there are other important boards that oversee the town’s needs. The BOF looks at the big picture and it is a tough position to be in plus they volunteer for it! They take input from all sources. That goes for residents and other boards.
My experience is that the first BOE number is a trial balloon. This year It started at 5.99% now it is at 4.75%. The proponents try to convince residents, that if the budget does not pass, property values will crash, our children will not receive a great education, we will not hold our position in the rankings and those who question this logic don’t care about our children. The town will cease to be a great place to live Etc, Etc. There was a real outcry in 1981 when Comstock School closed. The opponents say our school enrollments have been going down every year since 2009, our town population only grew by 2.4 % in the last decade and less than half of residents have children in the system. 27% of residents are under 17. 31% are over 55. Etc, Etc. Suddenly after all the discussions the budget magically starts to develop. Changes are found in numerous line items then later even some savings may appear, and a real number begins to take shape. In the end, each side of the coin is not completely pleased, and the middle group is still accepting or assuming the final budget number. We don’t know, the middle groups don’t vote. I think I said that? Whatever that number is, it becomes the basis for next year’s budget, and then we go again. The media will keep us posted. Stay tuned for the next episode.
Last year much the same happened as usual. However, after last year’s budget adjustments our schools were able to gain a place in the rankings, up to number 5, and in addition, be named by the CSDE as the top-performing district in the state! Kudos to the teachers, they did more with what they had when some proclaimed it was not enough. Our home values held strong, yes, the “Covid” helped. We compare ourselves to other towns. Our median house value is $750,000, mill rate is 27.4, our neighboring towns, New Canaan, Westport and Darien have seven-figure medians, their mill rates are in the teens. We do not have the infrastructure those towns have to draw on, we just have pockets.
Now we have “Block” scheduling and “coaches” vs teachers. At what cost etc. I noted and said earlier, kudos to the teachers. They were the front line during the “Covid” epidemic, and our great schools continue to excel.
“The more things change the more they stay the same”
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