The public hearing on the 2021-2022 Board of Education (BOE) budget took place last evening (Monday, March 29). But was anyone paying attention?
Last night’s meeting was well-publicized and easily attended on Zoom. While the webinar format did not reveal the exact size of the listening audience, one town official estimated the number of online attendees at perhaps 20 residents not affiliated with town boards or employees. What’s more, only three residents offered comments live during the hearing and just one other sent an email.
Led by the Board of Finance (BOF), the public hearings are an important step in the annual budget process, an opportunity for residents to learn how town leaders propose to spend their tax dollars, and for residents to freely comment on those proposals, before the budget vote at the Annual Town Meeting.
The BOE budget is the single largest component of the overall town budget, followed by the Board of Selectmen (BOS) budget. (The public hearing on the BOS budget will take place tonight, March 30, via Zoom.)
BOF chair Jeffrey Rutishauser began the hearing with a presentation that included the highlights of the FY2022 town budget, some historical perspective, and an explanation of the role of the BOF – and how all of that leads to a projected mill rate calculation for taxpayers.
The proposed BOE budget would be $84.8 million, an increase of just under $2.5 million, or 2.99%, over the previous year.
As such, the BOE budget would account for nearly two-thirds of the total proposed operating budget (roughly $129 million).
The BOE budget increase is offset by other favorable budget factors. “The total operating requirement is only up 1.21% recognizing the reserves we put in place last year [were] reduced significantly this year being non-COVID year,” said Rutishauser.
Favorable increases in the Grand List (1.34%) and non-tax revenues (over $1 million) will also benefit the budget. Those factors, along with a “modest” increase in debt service and maintaining tax relief for the elderly and disabled, would result in a mill rate of 28.1013, an increase of 2.33% versus FY2021.
Throughout the budget process, Rutishauser has emphasized that a longer-term perspective is as important as comparisons to the previous year, when the COVID-19 pandemic created uncertainty and wreaked havoc on budgets.
With the BOE and BOS budgets as proposed, the mill rate of 28.1013 would represent a decrease of 1.5% from FY2020.
The mill rate discussed at the March 29 hearing is not yet final. Rutishauser explained what factors the BOF considers in its upcoming mill rate deliberations:
- The views of Wilton citizens expressed through direct communication (email the BOF)
- The financial resources of the town
- Whether the BOE and the BOS can find additional savings in their respective budget requests
- The appropriateness of revenue, debt service and General Fund balance amounts
Ultimately, the BOF will put forth a FY2022 budget and corresponding mill rate at the Annual Town Meeting, where it becomes subject to a town vote.
BOE chair Deborah Low also gave a presentation during the hearing. She began by thanking the meeting’s attendees for participating “in this unique format” and said, “The BOE is glad for the opportunity to provide an overview of our proposed next year’s budget.”
The lion’s share (about 80%) of the BOE budget goes to salaries and related insurance and benefits. While there are several staffing changes behind the salary numbers, Low explained the insurance increase is being driven by “a 12-month claim history and an increase in discretionary medical procedures that were postponed during COVID.”
The BOE has previously stated the district will be in “recovery mode” during the 2021-2022 school year. Early in the budget planning process, Superintendent Kevin Smith said the proposed budget would prioritize the staffing, support and programs needed for recovery.
Low explained this point in great depth during the hearing. She said:
“We must prepare for the post-pandemic school year. Our schools have provided this year an exceptional education under extraordinary circumstances. The pandemic forced implementation of radically different learning environments. Our exceptional faculty and staff delivered excellent instruction in remote, hybrid and in-person formats while ensuring students’ health and safety and making personal connections and providing individual support… [But] we do have to be mindful of possible learning loss, learning gaps and the social-emotional impact of this year on our students. We know we have lost instructional time… we also know COVID affected each student differently, so next year we need to be sure we have the resources to accurately assess students and provide strong intervention services as needed… and we need to be attentive to the social-emotional learning as students transition back and re-connect more fully.”
Additional staff to achieve the supports and programs Low outlined are offset by enrollment-driven reductions in other areas.
Like Rutishauser, Low also put the budget numbers in historical context: the BOE budget increase has averaged just 1.13% over the last 7 years, including the proposed 2.99% increase.
She also put the budget increase in a comparative context: compared to schools in Wilton’s district reference group (DRG), Wilton’s increase is lower than what has been proposed in Ridgefield (3.45%), Darien (3.99%), Westport (4.11%) and New Canaan (5.00%). Only Weston’s proposed increase is lower (2.68%).
Historically, per-pupil spending in Wilton has also compared favorably with those towns. Low presented data for the past four years starting with the 2015-2016 school year but did not include 2019-2020 (data collected by the state Department of Education is lagging, according to Low).
A forecast of student enrollment is a key assumption in any school budget. Low pointed out that the enrollment estimate is “a risk to the budget” if it turns out to be significantly higher than their best estimate. Enrollment figures have been unusually difficult to predict this year, due to the number of students who left the district for private schools or opted for homeschooling during the pandemic (some of whom might return) as well as the unknown impact from the continuing high volume of Wilton home sales.
Low reminded the audience of the district’s ideal vision of the Wilton public school graduate and cautioned against overlooking these ideals in a desire to reduce budgets.
Low said, “These are aspirational and idealistic goals. We need to match that to actual curriculum and instructional practices in our schools, and this requires ongoing assessments, ongoing curriculum development, new and revised course proposals and programs, and robust staff training. Our strategic plan will not be accomplished overnight. Because it is lofty and lengthy, unfortunately, it can also become vulnerable during a budget process. But if we forget or defer or diminish these ideals on a regular basis, we will ultimately fall behind and there will be a gradual erosion of our educational quality.”
Three residents spoke during the hearing. All three were in support of the proposed budget.
One said, “It seems to me we really need to honor what the schools feel they need and 2.99% is not unreasonable under the circumstances and with all of the uncertainties that lie ahead, particularly with respect to students’ needs. They have been so impacted by this past year, the schools and teachers have done such a wonderful job in trying to address those needs… but the fact is there [are] psychological needs, educational catch-up needs, and a whole bunch of needs that are going to have to be addressed, and we need to make sure our schools have the funds to do that, and so for all those reasons, I urge you to approve the 2.99% and support our schools this year in particular.”
A second resident simply said, “I’m a mom of two Wilton school children and I just want to say I support the budget. I think it’s conservative and our kids need a lot of support. So I just want to say I approve of this budget.”
John Kalamarides, a former BOF member, also offered comment. “I want to compliment the BOF and BOE on what a fine job they’ve done this year under very trying circumstances and looking at the numbers, and doing an analysis this afternoon, I thought [the budget] was very fair. I support the 2.99% increase.”
Rutishauser then read a letter the BOF had received from a 50-year resident of Wilton, who recalled that “the world did not come to an end” when previous town budgets were rejected. He acknowledged the Wilton school system is “great” but questioned whether declining school population, federal COVID relief dollars, current tax burdens and other factors were truly being considered in the budget proposal. In the end, he urged the board to “do your best to hold the line”.
It is not too late for residents to comment on the BOE or BOS budgets.
On April 6-7, the BOF will hold Budget and Mill Rate Deliberations meetings.
All meetings are open to the public and are held on Zoom. Links to meetings are found on the meeting agenda page on the town of Wilton website.