As unsettled as the question of the Board of Education budget still is, and with the Board of Finance meeting tonight to finalize its recommendation for a budget to propose at the Annual Town Meeting in May, GOOD Morning Wilton has received several letters from readers about the topic. Some were written in reaction to yesterday’s letter from former BOF Chair Warren Serenbetz, and others have been sent by readers who have followed the budget process this year.
Below are letters we received Monday, April 11. They are printed in the order of the time they were received via email.
It’s Fiction that Student-Facing Cuts are Only Options
To the Editor:
One of the fictions heard in abundance since last week in Wilton is that in order to lessen budget increases, Wilton schools would have to make cuts to expenditures that have direct impacts on students, such as math interventionists and special education. This is pure rubbish that seems like gamesmanship on the part of Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith and Board of Education Chair Deborah Low. It is unfortunate that Smith and Low took a political road by reacting to the Board of Finance so reflexively in a way clearly intended to hurt as much as possible. Wilton deserves better.
Serenbetz’s Claims are Misleading — Wilton Should Trust Judgment of Bd. of Ed & Super. on Best Use of School Budget, Not Second-Guessing by Current and Former BoF Members
To the Editor:
Regarding Warren Serenbetz‘s letter “Bd. of Eduction, Not Finance, Decides What to Cut or Keep in Budget,” this is a disappointingly misleading letter from a former Board of Finance chair.
First off, comparing our mill rate to those of neighboring towns is highly disingenuous. New Canaan, Westport, and Darien have much larger grand lists than ours — any Wilton homeowner can spend a few minutes on Zillow looking up what a comparable property in those towns would cost to understand why our mill rates are so high. We don’t get a discount on teacher salaries because our houses are cheaper than houses in Westport.
It also doesn’t help matters that our population is smaller than any of the other towns he mentions; an awful lot of the costs of running a school district are fixed, and don’t scale neatly with the size of the student body. This applies not just to administration and support services but also to more tangible things like athletics and transportation — Wilton spends a lot of money running half-empty buses because we have so much low-population-density ground they need to cover. (Of course we had a golden opportunity to reduce some of our costs a few years ago by sharing administrative services with neighboring towns, but the “Hands Off Our Schools” folks put a stop to that.)
Mr. Serenbetz is quite correct that the Board of Education decides what to keep and what to cut, but he fails to grapple with the larger implications of that. Wilton voters elected the BoE — they have exactly as much of a mandate as the BoF does. If Wilton voters thought that the district was spending too much money on instructional coaching, they would have favored BoE candidates who promised to reduce the district’s spending on that.
If the BoF wanted to advance strictly economic or fiscal arguments for cutting the BoE budget, that would at least be operating within their competency — making those determinations is the job they’re elected to do. However, the actual arguments put forward by BoF members for reducing the BoE budget have had little to do with that larger picture (resting heavily on an inconclusive and at any rate not-exactly-statistically-rigorous resident survey) and much more to do with calling out specific items in the BoE budget that they consider wasteful and saying that the BoE budget ought to be cut because they don’t think the BoE should be spending money on those things.
The BoE budget request is fundamentally reasonable — it’s not a disproportionately large increase relative to what other districts are doing, and it’s coming after many years of very lean budgets, not to mention a pandemic blowing up everything. It’s also coming at a time when we’re in a particularly strong position to attract new residents, both with the shift to hybrid work making farther-flung NYC suburbs like Wilton more appealing and with developers eager to build new housing along Route 7; if there’s any time to invest in our school system, it’s right now.
The BoF should fully fund the BoE budget request based on that larger economic and fiscal picture, and not presume to tell its fellow board that it’s spending money on the wrong things. We have an outstanding superintendent and an experienced and well-qualified Board of Education — we should trust their judgment on the best use of our school budget, and not subject it to second-guessing by current and former BoF members.
BOF “Appropriately Holding School Administration’s Feet to the Budget Fire”
To the Editor:
Finally! While the Wilton Board of Finance does not have any “line item” authority over the schools’ budget, the BOF is appropriately holding the school administration’s feet to the fire on the budget issues that seem to be in need of attention. Like most people I am not a budget “hawk” nor do I advocate for austerity budgets in our schools, but it is time to trim the fat in the schools’ budget. And, despite what [Superintendent] Dr. Kevin Smith and [Board of Education Chair] Deborah Low seem to suggest, reigning in spending can be done in ways that are not directly impacting our students and their education.