At Thursday evening’s (Feb. 25) Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Kevin Smith presented his initial 2021-2022 budget proposal to board members.
His budget request is $85,569,914.86. This represents an increase of just over $3.25 million, or 3.92%, over the previous budget.
Positioning the budget with the theme of “Responding, Recovering and Re-Imagining,” Dr. Smith said he expects to be in “recovery mode” at the start of the 2021-2022 school year and ready to move forward with ways to better serve students and families after a difficult year and a half responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Smith explained, “While we’ll still be experiencing some restrictions and implementing some mitigation strategies, we believe we’ll be moving toward more typical operations.”
He began his presentation with the sobering perspective that back in July and August of 2020, the Board was grappling with the uncertainty of whether in-person learning would even be possible.
“The reopening question for us quickly evolved from ‘if’ to ‘how’,” said Smith. “Since early September, when we first welcomed students back into our schools, the question again evolved, ‘how to help better’. In the midst of so much uncertainty, what is and has remained certain is our collective commitment to delivering on our promises and providing a world-class education to our students and families.”
Smith believes his proposed budget is driven by the right priorities. “During this unprecedented time, we do remain focused on our core mission and vision to inspire and prepare students to contribute to a global, interdependent society by providing a rigorous, learner-centered curriculum. You’ll see when we dive more deeply into the budget, our spending proposal prioritizes staffing and programs that support our vision and mission.”
Key highlights from the budget presentation:
- Salaries, benefits and insurance account for the lion’s share (nearly 80%) of the budget. With a net increase of 4.5 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff, salaries are up 3% in the proposed budget.
- Utilities, though less than 2% of the overall budget, are expected to increase next year, mainly for natural gas (estimated at $110,000, up from $65,000 last year). Smith explained that it will cost more to heat the buildings when they are taking simultaneous steps to increase fresh air circulation throughout the buildings as a virus mitigation measure.
- Smith reassured board members that what might appear as reductions in physical education, art and music are not changes in programming, but lower costs resulting from overall enrollment trends.
- Over the last several years, Wilton’s school budgets have averaged only slightly above 1% per year. This year’s nearly 4% increase, however, is very much in line with the districts in Wilton’s competitive District Reference Group (DRG), which are expecting similar or higher increases, as shown below.
Smith momentarily diverted from the future budget numbers to take a look back on the technology front.
“We have been exceptionally well-served by our technology and digital learning teams. Last March, when we made the transition to full remote, we had the infrastructure in place to do so. That is a result of multi-year improvement planning. This year, similarly, when we implemented the hybrid model, on the whole, the implementation was pretty smooth. And again, this is a result of the infrastructure improvements we had been making over the last five years. This is an area of the budget where we’ve seen tremendous return on our investment,” he said.
Smith went on to praise Fran Kompar, director of digital learning, and Erik Haakonsen, director of technology. “The work that Fran and Erik have done… has just been incredible in supporting our teachers and students, and managing the multiple environments in which they have to work and teach our kids.”
The details of the budget will be further explored in a series of workshops between BOE members and administrators on March 2, 3 and 4. In addition to all of the budget line items, several topics are likely to get closer scrutiny in terms of whether and how the budget addresses them:
- The Special Education achievement gap: “We have a significant achievement gap between our general education and special education students. We’ve articulated goals around narrowing the achievement gap,” said Smith.
- The so-called ‘COVID slide’: “We remain concerned about the potential for learning loss and have introduced sharper diagnostic tools that provide clear data about students’ levels of performance and potential learning gaps,” said Smith. In the same presentation, however, Smith reminded the Board of the exceptional performance of students on a number of metrics like AP coursework, bi-literacy levels, National Merit Scholarship, and prestigious college admissions, along with various school rankings and distinctions.
- Enrollment estimates: As Smith said, “[Over time] we have been experiencing a relatively modest enrollment decline… and I’ll just say in general, enrollment this year is more challenging to forecast because of the disruption to enrollment caused by the pandemic.” The proposed budget presents pre-pandemic estimates and updated projections, but Smith acknowledged that more precise numbers are difficult to ascertain at the present time.
- Middlebrook facilities improvements: Plans to renovate bathrooms located near the auditorium were on hold this year amid questions as to whether initial budget estimates would be sufficient and whether the town would be better poised to fund longer-term capital projects like this.
Both before and after the budget presentation, BOE Chair Deborah Low made appeals to the public to get informed about the budget and participate in the process. At one point she said, “This is the beginning of our budget process. And so I encourage the public and parents and the entire community to be involved as possible.”
See Smith’s whole presentation and all the budget numbers, here:
Following the BOE workshops on the budget, the Board of Finance (BOF) will meet with the BOE on March 4 to review Smith’s proposed budget numbers. See the BOE webpage for the upcoming meeting calendar, agendas, and links to Zoom meetings.