The past week has been a tough one in the annual budget setting process, with discord between members of key town boards and disagreement on how to pay for necessary expenses. Now comes another bad news hit: Wilton school officials say cuts the Board of Finance is asking the district to make to the $87,571,064 FY 2023 budget proposal they prepared will hurt where it matters — in special education, math intervention, transportation and technology.
At last night’s (Thursday, April 7) Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Kevin Smith explained his plan to meet this week’s request by the Board of Finance to find $458,000 in his budget to trim — and how it would impact the district.
“We just underscore the point, as we’ve been talking about now for a couple of years, that we have squeezed our non-personnel accounts pretty tightly. And so while we can do a little bit, there just aren’t buckets of money unless we’re willing to choose to sacrifice programs. And I don’t think that’s wise. So in some of those places, we are kind of working on the margins,” Smith said.
Smith is also hoping that $458,000 to trim doesn’t grow even larger as long as two assumptions play out: the first is that an additional $205,002 for certain improvements to lighting and flooring at Middlebrook School will be included in the town’s capital bonding process; and the second is that the BOF would find allowances to pay $200,000 for a necessary elevator replacement at Wilton High School and $50,000 for a flooring study, both of which can’t be covered by bonding.
Smith’s itemization of where he plans to find cost savings made clear that school officials could no longer protect an area considered a last resort — student-facing staff. It’s also the area likely to set off alarms among many residents.
Board of Education members were certainly alarmed by the idea, and hoped the Board of Finance members would understand.
“What if we … go back to the Board of finance and say, ‘We have come up with all of this, but we are now, to meet your number, that means we are cutting our math interventionist…” BOE member Jen Lalor began.
“Well I hope they’re watching tonight, to be honest,” Chair Deborah Low added.
“Because when they say, ‘Well, what’s $400,000-something on an $87 million budget?’ This is what it is,” member Ruth DeLuca added.
“Or $688,000, depending on that elevator,” Low reminded. “If they do not restore the elevator money, because the bonding stuff is dead, that’s just not going to happen. So hopefully the Board of Finance can understand that and decide what to do with the elevator money. That has to happen. If we could postpone that elevator, maybe we almost would want to do that, but we literally cannot do that.”
Low added hopefully that there might still be time for the BOF to reconsider its request for reductions even more, considering it has not taken a final vote on the budget proposal it will recommend to the town voters at the Annual Town Meeting.
Although the BOF had voted 4-2 to ask the BOE to make the reduction, it didn’t officially approve the resolution to do so when it was scheduled to during deliberations on April 4-5, and now has a special meeting scheduled for Tuesday, April 12 — the last possible day under the Town Charter — to finalize that detail.
DeLuca said she hoped residents would write to the BOF to make the case for reconsidering the cuts.
“Anyone watching at home, feel free to write in a letter or an email.”
Smith’s Proposed Reduction Areas
Smith told BOE members that he prioritized reductions in areas where he could “anticipate additional savings” and that would have the “least negative impact on students and programming.” He looked for opportunities that have emerged through “natural changeover” where departing staff could be replaced by lower-paid newcomers. He also considered eliminating positions that were proposed but not currently filled.
Some of the proposed cuts raised questions from board members. Answering many of them, Smith told them, “We’re at a point in our budget where we have to make choices. There’s just not room to give.”
- Replacing/refilling open administrator spots: departing WHS athletic director and Cider Mill assistant principal (paid at the top of the pay scale) would be replaced with new hires compensated at a lower salary — savings of $15,000
- New contract with new internet service provider signed this past week — savings of $10,000
- Reduce number of new replacement chromebooks (approximately 25 extras used for standardized testing) — savings of $10,000
- Targeted transportation reductions, including athletics (some away games); field trips; in-district special education — savings of $10,000
- Reduced Special Education Contract Services: reduced services delivered through contracted providers. Assistant Superintendent for Special Services Andrea Leonardi explained that direct services required by IEPs would not be impacted but the budget in other consultative areas would be tightened. — savings of $70,000
- Reduced hours for School Social Worker: reduce from .8 FTE to .5, and move to ARP/ESSR Grant for one year. When the grant expires at the end of next year, the district would have to decide whether to build the position into operating expenses covered by the district or eliminate the position. — Savings of $100,000
- Eliminate .5 FTE paraprofessional: a vacancy created through retirment will no longer be filled — savings of $30,000
- Eliminate 1.0 FTE paraprofessional hire: new planned-for hire that will be eliminated; carries risk that new families will move into district, increasing need, which may require the district to scramble to find a hire — savings of $60,000. Smith explained that scramble would result in needing to find funds through cuts elsewhere (cutting supplies, books, etc.)
- Eliminate 1.0 FTE Math Specialist hire: proposed hire at Middlebrook will be liminated — savings $120,000
- Reduction of .2 certified FTE (.1 science and .1 art) at WHS: reduction would result in increased class sizes in forensics and select art classes; would result in large class sizes (from 19 to 22 students in forensics; to 23-24 students in various art classes). — savings of $20,000
- Reduction of .4 certified FTE in art in Middlebrook: with smaller incoming 6th grade, hire a .4 FTE rather than full-time teacher; would result in larger class sizes (22-23 students) in both art and music classes (because of corresponding scheduling in music) — savings of $40,000
Concerns about Keeping Instructional Coaches vs. Losing Student-Facing Staff and Math Interventionist
After hearing Smith’s list of areas to be cut, BOE members zeroed in on two main concerns: the specific elimination of a proposed math interventionist hire and the broader issue of making reductions in student-facing staff, which have long been considered the last places in the budget that anyone wanted to touch.
It was an especially sensitive topic for two reasons: several members of the Board of Finance had questioned the need for instructional coaches — those who work with teachers rather than directly with students; and school officials have acknowledged lower math achievement performance district-wide and have implemented a multi-year effort to address shortfalls in the math program across all four schools.
Smith sought to dispel the idea of student-facing versus non-facing.
“I reject that because it’s not accurate. I would encourage all to consider the entire system. It’s not just the teachers and the support services in the classroom. There’s also a human infrastructure around them that they need to have,” he began.
Instructional coaches are a key part of what Smith called the district’s “very aggressive agenda” to improve academic improvement.
“They’ve been vital since the day we hired them. It’s taken a couple years in a couple of our buildings for them to really gain a foothold with our staff, but they provide an essential service. And if I thought we could reduce the instructional coaching staff or some other related staff member that’s not on this list [of reductions], it would be on this list,” he said.
BOE member Mandi Schmauch asked if Smith thought coaches are as important as a math specialist?
“I do because they’re capacity builders. We have to lift the entire ship here. Our coaches work across teachers to build capacities of entire departments,” he responded.
When Schmauch said she’d like to see some data to justify the large expense and determine if the coaching approach was working, he told her the proof was in the district’s improving achievement data. He also said all BOE members were welcome to watch the process and talk to teachers to get their input.
Smith also said he agreed with the frustration of cutting a math specialist, and at least the district was keeping its math coaches. When a board member said, “It kills me that almost $400,000 is from interfacing student services and teachers. Is there any way for us to look at other options?” Smith responded, “These are the options.”
“I share your pain,” he later added. “This wasn’t easy to drop out of the sky. We had proposed a math specialist for Middlebrook [in the FY 2023] budget. We can’t do that with this $485,000 reduction. So that is a proposal that [now] needs to be deferred.”
Smith pointed out that there are still two math specialists at Middlebrook, an AIM teacher and an existing full-time interventionist. “This was a proposed new position that’s being eliminated.”
Some of the board members questioned if there were other ways to configure FTE time, perhaps by reducing some coaching hours, or rebalancing coaching from literacy to math.
“I would be loath at this point to reduce our coaches, especially as we’re just gaining traction again, coming out of COVID. And with our math coaches, there’s one per building so they’re already spread thin, so I would not be recommending reducing math coaches,” Smith said.
Both Smith and Director of Human Resource and Administration Maria Coleman also explained that reducing time, even from 1.0 to 0.9 FTE, makes working for the district much less attractive.
“Who wants to work for a 0.9 when you can go work for a 1.0? It’s $12,000 to $15,000 — it’s not nothing. … While that model can work, they also struggle to fill their less than 1.0 vacancies annually. Sometimes people drop to a 0.9, 0.8, and we lose people.” Smith said.
Coleman agreed. “It’s 10% of their pay, so that’s significant. It makes a difference to even cut someone 0.1… we have lost people, or not retained them. If they can’t find it here, they go to another district.”
Coaches — the Cadillac of Teaching
DeLuca suggested one indication of the importance of coaches was reflected in the way administrators built their budgets.
“Throughout this entire budget process, we heard from school principals in our workshops about the tradeoffs that were made even before the budget was brought to us. And in all of those tradeoffs, I never once heard a discussion about [eliminating] coaches or [re]thinking about how that model works,” she said.
She called coaching an investment in Wilton’s teachers.
“Making sure that their professional development and education is ongoing as the enterprise of teaching grows and changes is of vital importance. I look at corporate models where you have chief learning officers. I would hope the classroom teacher who was certified 15 years ago is still having access and resources to newer and better ways as we learn more about how children develop and learn. That’s an equally important part of a successful education model,” DeLuca said.
Smith said he needed to better convey the significance of coaching to the community, and explained that the coaching model is considered the gold standard in teaching pedagogy.
“We’ve lost the narrative around instructional support. We talk about being a district that embraces innovative practices. Providing job-embedded coaching and support to teachers is the best model — and it’s not Kevin telling you this, this is research-supported, it’s vetted, it’s widely popular,” he said, adding it was something the district embraced and invested in very early.
Lalor made one more attempt at saving the math interventionist position.
“Are you sure there’s nothing else in your budget [to cut instead]?”
Smith answered quickly. “If there was, it would be on this list.”
He continued: “For next year we are not going to be able to increase intervention services. We’re going to maintain the status quo that we had, and we’re going to work the daylights out of our kids who are getting intervention. If there was another way to keep this, it would be in front of you.”
At the BOF special meeting on April 12, a final budget number will be set and Smith will then know for sure what reductions he’ll need to make. He’ll bring those figures to the next BOE meeting on Thursday, April 29 for its final approval.
Every parent with a Middlebrook student who’s struggling in math is going to know exactly which 3 Republicans to blame for the lack of assistance they get from the school next year.
Michael Love…feel free to write a personal check to the schools if you don’t think they are spending enough. Get your Democrat friends to do the same.
Targeting math, sciences, English is a transparent ploy to seek support. Good teachers don’t need coaches…students need good teachers in classrooms. Save coaches salaries to recruit even better teachers.
We can save approximately $250K by eliminating the new and unnecessary Town Administrator position and transferring those savings into the BOE budget.
Eliminate the new and unnecessary Town Administrator position, and invest that money in Wilton students.
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