EDITOR’S NOTE:  GOOD Morning Wilton attended the Wilton Public Schools Superintendent’s Proposed Budget Presentation for FY’19 on Thursday evening and live blogged the presentation. Approximately 40 people were in the auditorium; the presentation was not broadcast live. We’ve updated the live blog with clarifications and additional information where the presentation went too quickly to catch everything completely the first go-round. 

For a look at what Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith and Board of Education chair Christine Finkelstein had to say last week before Smith first presented his budget to the BOE, read our interview with them both, here. Finkelstein’s subsequent Notes from the Board Table” calls the budget an “eye-opener.” In the column she writes, “It is possible we have reached the point where our penchant for cost cutting has started to inflict damage.” 

The text reflects what Smith says during the presentation.

At the end is a list of upcoming dates in the budget process, where residents will have the opportunity to comment.

ORIGINAL LIVE BLOG:  Thursday, Jan. 25, 7 p.m.–Tonight is the first presentation by the Wilton Public Schools superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith of his proposed school budget for Fiscal Year 2018-2019.

“It’s my privilege to present this budget.”  –Kevin Smith

There are 3 critical questions to ask ourselves:

  1. As a community, the first question is what do we want for our students?
  2. How much does it cost?
  3. The very challenging question:  How much are we willing to pay?

The work we do in the Wilton system matters for each child. As Board of Education chair Chris Finkelstein says, we only get one shot.

What do we want for our students?

Reviewing the core beliefs–everything flows from this:

In 2017-2018, this is no small ask.

Flowing from the core beliefs is the school’s vision:

Stemming from our core beliefs, Flowing from our vision, we’ve established strategic objectives, which form the priorities that our funding plan addresses:

In response to the question, “How much does it cost,” it’s important to start with the goals and budget assumptions. The budget goals grow out of those objectives above:

We also need to name our assumptions. This first slide speaks to contracted increases, most notably that salary costs, energy, transportation and other defined costs will go up…the only number that will go down is enrollment and that will go down, albeit with a small decline.

However, student enrollment, we’re projecting it to come down about 9-10% over the next 10 years. We’re going to have to continue to ask ourselves about the priorities we fund and the way we structure our schools, as we manage that decline.

In the next year, we’re only seeing a decline of approximately 46 students. Although in this current year we experienced a decline, it wasn’t nearly the decline we projected–in fact we had to add an additional 3rd grade class at Cider Mill. The other important note about next year, that 46 student decline is distributed across K-12, and it’s not enough concentration in a single class to necessitate closing of a class, so there is no enrollment driven staff reduction.

Now look at Budget priorities.

This next year is Smith’s “year 3” budget after starting here, so this is an expression of multi-year objectives:  effort to focus on improving school climate, focuses on implementing curriculum aligned to new standards, focuses on enhancing practice that corresponds to those standards, increasing the district’s ability to provide STEM and STEAM instruction, and further implementation of the digital learning environment.

In Wilton we’ve looked for ways we can continue to improve service while economizing and saving dollars. We’ve made recent changes that represent real savings. This budget reflects continued collective effort to provide world-class education while responding to the current challenge of fiscal environment.

One way this is reflected is total change in staff since FY’16. That number is a decrease of net total of 20.21 since then. 

We continue to look at staffing, but realize, “Education is a people business and we need people to do the business.”

When we look at spending in surrounding communities, and especially annual budget increases, our BOE has slowed the growth of spending despite annual contracted increases. In fact, current per pupil expenditure is #6 in our DRG. It’s the one area we don’t desire to be #1.

Also compared compounded annual budget increases between Wilton and neighboring communities. By comparison, the percentage budget increases in neighboring communities since 2014 are double or more than Wilton’s compounded increases during that same time.

This year is no different. The proposed increase is substantially lower than the proposed increase for a number of our DRG A communities.

How do we invest in our students, and how do we allocate our dollars?

We provide a comprehensive, robust educational experience for all of our students. We invest in a rigorous core curriculum, in arts and music education, in athletics and in extracurricular activities to round out the skill sets of all of our kids.

Our students do very well.

Nearly half of the Class of 2017 was accepted to colleges and universities ranked as “most competitive” or “highly competitive.” When students go to college, the overwhelming majority graduate within 4-5 years. 82% of Wilton High School graduates graduate college within six years. That’s a very different story compared to the national average of 60% who graduate in six years.

That tells us that not only are our students prepared to enter the most competitive colleges, but to succeed when they get there. That’s a most significant return on investment.

Early decision/single choice admissions statistics for the Class of 2018 so far:  acceptance to Brown, Dartmouth, Duke, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Penn, Tufts, Wellesley, and Yale, among others.

Annually our students are the top achievers nationally on a variety of measures:

Our students rise to the top in extracurricular opportunities. Year after year Wilton students compete and perform at the very highest levels.

Through a wide array of extracurricular activities and athletics, our students have an opportunity to round out their experiences that can’t be replicated in classroom settings. Again, we see our students rising to the top and topping out in academic competitions, athletics, and more.

Wilton schools have been recognized for excellence.

We invest in teachers.

We invest in the vision, dedicating dollars to our priorities that will have the greatest impact on student learning:

Engineering courses, the digital learning environment, improving the school climate, and more.

Investing in our vision means investing in the new literacies and new competencies our young people need to be successful as they prepare for college and the world:  media literacy, technological literacy, global literacy; they need curricular experiences that develop their abilities to communicate, collaborate, create and critically examine the world around them.

The ways we address this is through the Library Learning Commons, development of Stem instruction beginning at Miller-Driscoll, developing many new courses at WHS, and the ready access digital learning environment at each of the schools.

In the development of the LLC, we are a leader in the region.

We invest in the needs of ALL learners. Students come to us on a continuum. We’ve revamped and grown the pre-school program and launched the age 18-21 Community Steps transition program. The WHS is creating a proposal for an alternative high school for students with social and emotional/anxiety needs that prevents them from participating fully in the high school curriculum.

What does it cost?

In order to achieve all of this and make sure Wilton remains at the top and continues to get better, the administration is proposing a budget for $82,168,952, a 1.98% increase over FY’18. The majority of that funding is connected to personnel.

  • Contracted salaries and benefits represent nearly 80% of the total spending package. Contracted salaries represent 83% of the increase.
  • There is growth in professional services, tied to technology
  • Reductions in Property services, supplies, and equipment

What’s in the budget:

What’s NOT in the budget:

The first draft of the budget from administrators to Smith reflected a 7.5% increase over last year. He requested them to go back and make significant revisions.

  • Now there is a proposal to reduce a social worker and occupational therapist
  • New staff positions eliminated
  • Cuts to the athletics department
  • Deferred maintenance
  • Deferred textbook purchases

Detailed budget is on the district website.

There are eight object areas in the budget. Smith outlines the Key points for each of those objects:

  1. Salary:  the largest portion of any school budget. This year there’s an approximately 3% increase in contracted salary obligations (83% of the total requested increase) and 2.95 FTE reduction in staffing in the budget.

2.  Insurance and Benefits:  The good news, our staff is really healthy–lower health claims costs, and we haven’t seen increases in annual costs like other communities. We saw a savings of $80,000 in OPEB contributions.

3.  Professional Services:  

4.  Property Services:  A modest reduction in this category.

Some maintenance projects have been deferred and other urgent needs are eligible to be handled (hopefully) through seeking bonding.

Our community has emerged as a state leader in environmental sustainability through Zero Waste Initiative.

5.  Other purchased services:   Last year the transportation contract was renegotiated after the district went out to competitively bid. There have been some savings and reductions in this area to offset the increases in the phone system lease obligation and liability insurance.

6. Supplies and Materials/7.  Equipment:  Some purchases have been deferred–textbooks, furniture, etc. leading to some modest reductions.

8.  Dues:  Gaggle is new software which allows monitoring of student work in Google.

The DMC study:

Recommendations made by the consultants for Special Education. The first covered reading intervention and Smith is very proud of the work done and implemented in this area by the district, including adding reading interventionists.

Others included reduction in certain related services staffing (OT, speech, paras) based on national averages around grouping sizes and like districts.

Assumption made if we adopt all the recommendations for cost-cutting made by DMC, we could see $1.98 million in savings, but as great as that sounds, that’s not the reality. We haven’t given up, and we are committed to making sure the staff is the right size. But there are differences in Wilton:  1) the complexities around providing IEP services and 504 plans are formidable barriers to any dramatic reduction of staff in related service areas. Our SPED prevalence rate is the highest in the DRG 13.7%, the state average is 13.1%; the next highest in the DRG is Darien at 13.5%, and the others are between 10-12%. We have more students referred, who need assessment and need services. We have five times the national average with Section 504 plans.

But we are making headways in implementing new staffing models. We have reduced some OT, speech and para services.

The district is committed and will continue to move forward thoughtfully.

When I presented the budget to the BOE, I told them I think it’s too low, even at 1.98%. We worked hard to put together a spending increase that the community would support. In order to get to 1.98%, I asked the leadership team to dig deep and make difficult choices–including cutting mental health support staff. But given the needs of the students, it’s not a cut I can support.

So, I proposed tiers of additional spending in order of importance:

Tier 1) some students outplaced for alternative programs with tuition costs that are more expensive than we could offer with our own alternative HS program. So we are working on that alternative high school program. Also would like to add back the social worker, OT and SPED secretary.

Tier 2 & 3)  add back in some items and we continue to look at the budget to see what could be/needs to be added back or cut. The BOE spent the last three days, and administrative team continues to examine spending priorities. To make sure that there is no other place we’d feel comfortable cutting.

By comparison, this plan is substantially lower than some of our surrounding communities. The districts in surrounding towns experience the exact same pressures and work we experience here, and we need to examine why those towns are making the choices they are.


Stephen Hudspeth:  What our schools do is extraordinary, and the work our teachers and administrators is doing is remarkable. With those things in mind, the 1.98% increase is a concern–I sense looking at the financial pressure and know that 83% is mandated salary increases, yet we’re cutting things tight. That’s a worry.

With so much talk about projected decrease in enrollment, there’s a recent TIME magazine that says there’s been an 11% increase in births following a decline in fertility. What reflects reality?

Other than that, no other comments.

There are other ways to engage in the conversation. We’re early in the process, the BOE has a lot of deliberating to do, including a workshop to do next Thursday night. There’s a joint BOE/BOF meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 13 at 7:30 p.m. in the WHS Professional Library (and Wednesday, Feb. 21, if needed). After, on February 22, at 7 p.m., there is a regular BOE meeting, where the BOE will vote to adopt the spending plan to send to the BOF.

In March (Monday, March 26) there will be another public hearing on the education budget, and the Town Meeting and Vote in May.

Email questions to Smith and the BOE.