This opinion paper was written by two members of the Board of Finance, Peter Balderston and Walter Kress, who presented it at the Jan. 26 BoF meeting. They sent it to GOOD Morning Wilton “in the spirit of greater transparency and educating Wilton’s electorate.”
In his email to GMW, Balderston writes that the paper, “…tries to frame the macro issues that our town currently faces in considering this year’s Wilton School Budget. Hopefully, the document speaks for itself in laying out the constraints we face as a town and what Walter and I will be looking for as the Board of Finance takes up the School Budget.” The report looks at enrollment, salaries, student/staff ratios, the composition of staff, and special education needs of the school.
From the draft minutes of the Jan. 26 BoF meeting, Kress points out that the school budget takes approximate 69-percent of the town’s revenues, and that, “…the BOF is very sensitive to the special education needs, which is seeing an increase of 20-percent in students and is approximately 25-percent of the budget” making it a “very significant driver” in the budget discussions.
Wilton Schools – Fiscal Year 2017 Budget
The Wilton Public School system is arguably one of our town’s most important assets. Our schools are why many residents moved here, and like Wilton’s Board of Education, the Board of Finance wants to maintain a sustainable, top-rated school system at a reasonable cost to the town’s taxpayers.
The Wilton School Budget absorbs 69-percent of the town’s total revenues (a percentage that has been climbing over the past ten years), and therefore plays a sizable role in the state of Wilton’s overall financial condition. After many years of growth in school enrollment, Wilton schools are now facing years of projected declines. The graph below lays out historic school enrollment from 1994 through projected 2023.
From 2013 to the current school year ending 2016, Wilton School enrollment declined by 2.65-percent from 4,319 to 4,219 students. For school year 2017 alone, our school expects an enrollment decline of 99 students or 2.35-percent. The enrollment projections set forth in the graph above are based on three independent studies commissioned by the Wilton School District (conducted in 2013, 2014 and 2015). Note that the yearly reductions from the current school year’s enrollment to 2023 are expected to average almost 2.00-percent per year. By 2023, enrollment is expected to be at the same level as it was in 1999. This is a significant and sustained year-over-year projected decline and its implications for the school and its budget are significant as well.
By far the largest component of the school’s budget is salaries and benefits paid to school staff, made up of three broad categories:
- Certified Professionals – special education staff and supporting staff for teachers
- Classified – all others, including administrative staff
Collectively, these compensation expenses currently represent slightly over 77-percent of the Board of Education’s total proposed 2017 budget and consume about 50-percent of Wilton’s total town tax revenues. As such, these variable compensation costs – variable based on the number school staff service the student body – will be a primary area of understanding and focus for the Board of Finance.
Below is an historic view of the makeup of Wilton School staff, with 10-year and 3-year annual rates of growth for each staff type.
Wilton’s superintendent and the Board of Education face the unenviable task of managing through this significant yearly decline in student enrollment while ensuring class sizes do not grow further. No doubt this is and will be a difficult process as it involves:
- Foregoing the replacement of retiring staff
- Reassigning administrative staff into teaching positions (certainly disruptive and not always possible); and
- Staff layoffs (always a difficult process)
When the Board of Finance devises this coming year’s rate of increase/decrease for the school budget, the ratio of students-to-staff, in particular, the composition of that staff amongst teachers, professionals and administrative personnel, and the cost per student, are key considerations in the deliberation process. The graph below lays out the historic students per school staff loading rate and cost per student over the past 10 years.
Special Education needs of the school (SPED) – mandated by the state – have obviously played a significant role in the rate of increase in cost per student over the past 10 years. Looking at the breakout of Special Education students served and its budgeted cost for fiscal year 2017, it’s clear that this portion of the budget has played a significant role in the year-over-year increase. In response to this rapidly increasing portion of the budget, Wilton’s Board of Education commissioned an in depth study to explore the cost effective use of the school’s limited resources. The Special Education & Struggling Students Opportunities Review, published in June of 2015, identifies a number of tangible, “high-potential, high-impact opportunities” for more cost effective use of SPED dollars that could be achieved in a 2-3 year time frame with potential annual savings in excess of $1.9 million. Understanding how the Review’s recommendations will be implemented and when the resulting cost-savings maybe integrated into the school budget will be another area of focus for the Board of Finance.
Finally, a significant constraint the Board of Finance faces is the current tax burden on Wilton property owners. The average rate of increase in Wilton property taxes over the past ten years has been 3.75-percent which has been largely driven by the historic increase in school enrollment. The general sentiment surrounding our recent town elections was one of fiscal restraint. Complaints of property taxes being too high and growing too fast were front and center in the debates leading up to the election, and we imagine this will continue to dominate the discussion.
All members of the Board of Finance want to get a clear indication from Wilton voters as to what direction the town’s finances should take – from the deliberation process all the way through to the final town vote on the budget. Over the coming months, the Board of Finance should encourage participation from the community and seek input from the electorate during the many opportunities Wilton voters will have to observe and be a part of the public process in developing the town’s 2016-2017 budget.