Statement Regarding FY2017 Board of Education Budget

  • Context & Rationale for Vote
    • I cannot support the requested $1.02MM (or 1.27%) increase in the Board of Education’s Fiscal Year 2017 (FY2017) budget. I believe, instead, that holding the Board of Education’s budget flat to last year is appropriate. Let me give some context and rationale for that position.
    • Wilton School System’s enrollment peaked in 2009 at 4,412 students – that was a full seven years ago. Enrollment in our schools has been declining ever since. Enrollment for FY2017 is projected at 4,120, a total decline since 2009 of 292 students, or -6.62%. Nevertheless, from FY2009 to the current budget year (FY2016), increases in the school budgets have averaged 2.28% annually. To repeat: during the last 7 fiscal years, school budget increases have averaged +2.28% annually while district-wide enrollment declined a total of -6.62% or approximately -1% per year.
    • I bring a private sector point-of-view to my role here on the Board of Finance. When you start losing customers, you need to shrink the staff that serves those customers. The taxpayers of this town have been very generous to our school system over the past 7 years during which the number of customers it serves has declined. We’ve known about these reductions for some time now, and we know that these reductions will continue for at least the next 4 to 5 years.
    • The ratio of students-to-total-staff (not just teachers, but total staff) has fallen to levels never seen before in Wilton School history and, I might add, well below those levels when our school system was rated #1 in the mid-1990s. Moreover, where enrollment is falling fastest within our school system – in the lower schools (Miller/Driscoll and Cider Mill) – the ratio of students to staff is falling the fastest. (All this data – presented in graphical form – was provided to the School Board at our February 25th I am making it available – along with this statement – to the press tonight in the hopes that it get published. It’s critical that we ground our decisions in facts.)
    • In my opinion, the Board of Education has been slow to respond to enrollment declines over the past 7 years and it’s time to manage down the growth of our school budgets relative to the number of students it serves. Knowing the challenges we face as a town, the Board of Selectmen has taken a leadership role this year by proposing a 0% increase, and I think our Board of Education must do the same.
  • The Importance of a Strong Grand List
    • There is a very important, two-way relationship between a town’s taxable real estate – its Grand List – and the health and quality of its school system. There is no doubt that great schools give rise to strong property values. But real estate assets with too high a tax burden cause property values to fall and new families to look elsewhere for real estate that holds its value. Unlike many of its neighboring towns, Wilton’s Grand List is light on commercial real estate and its residential housing density is rather low; this makes it sensitive to changes in property taxes. In fact, the town’s Grand List remains approximately 15% below its 2009 peak while surrounding towns have recorded new highs in their grand lists. The BOF’s duty is first and foremost to the town’s taxpayers to make sure property taxes are assessed in a balanced and prudent manner and that those tax dollars are spent wisely. Understanding this balance between a great school system and the property taxes which support that school system is at the heart of our mandate.
    • In my opinion, property tax increases over the last 10 years have created a very soft real estate environment for most Wilton homeowners. For the record, property tax increases in Wilton over the last 10 years have averaged 3.27% per year – almost 2 times the rate of inflation for the same period and during a time where many people in the private sector were lucky to get annual raises during the Great Recession. The Board of Finance recently heard from a number of real estate brokers in town that taxes on homes in Wilton have risen to levels that have depressed home prices and created a sizable and growing inventory of homes for sale. This increasing tax burden acts like a growing, permanent mortgage on a property, and we must be mindful of its effect on Grand List values. While I certainly encourage any effort to build our grand list, any initiative to do so – in the form of new commercial development or higher density housing – would be a multiyear undertaking the revenues from which will not be realized for at least 2-3 years. In the meantime, we continue to face significant declines in school enrollment over the next 4-5 years that require immediate action.
  • A Word of Warning
    • Looking to future budget years – 2018 and beyond – brings only more bad news, I’m afraid. Projected enrolment figures indicate an accelerating decline in student enrollment over the coming years. In addition, the fiscal turmoil in Hartford is very likely to dry up much of the revenue sharing dollars that we’ve counted on in years past. This will make the task of right-sizing Wilton’s school staff to its shrinking student population even more difficult. My message to the electorate of this town, to the School Board and to my colleagues on the Board of Finance is that, unfortunately, we’re just beginning to deal with a very difficult problem and we must be balanced in our approach to any real estate tax increases going forward. The Board of Education, like the Board of Selectmen, must develop and publish a strategic, multi-year plan which lays out – in very tangible ways – how it intends to manage down, over a multiyear period, its largest variable cost in tandem with this protracted decline in enrollment.