For the first time in two years, COVID mitigation strategies weren’t a prime element in the proposed Wilton Public Schools budget that Superintendent Kevin Smith presented to the Board of Education.
Instead, at their meeting on Thursday, Jan. 20, the BOE members heard a budget presentation that included more typical factors and costs — and with a 2.99% year-over-year increase, was one of the largest requested increases in the last seven years.
In all, Smith’s bottom line number for his proposed Wilton School District FY2023 operating budget is $87,339,862, which reflects an increase of $2,535,647 over the current year’s spending.
Smith underscored a few major points about the total budget amount:
- The first was that the total $87.34 million did not include the operating capital proposal Smith put together for Middlebrook Middle School and Wilton High School improvement projects (more on that below). His projected ask for facilities improvements in FY’23 amounted to $610,000 for an overall 3.71% increase over the current year.
- The second was that some of the funding for staffing would be coming from federal grants that the district received, including the American Rescue Plan (ARP) and the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER).
- Third, he also encouraged the BOE members to take a longer-lensed look at the proposed 2.99% budget increase, as part of a seven-year arc in which many years had “very modest or [even] no increases,” even though it followed FY’22 with its own 2.99% year-over-year increase. Smith noted that FY’20 had a 0.0% budget increase, and average annual increase over the seven years was 1.13%.
“Over the last seven years, the average budget increase was really just over a point. We’ve managed the cost increases very well. We’ve worked diligently to improve our programming, to enhance our services, and I think deliver budgets that reflect the desire to protect taxpayers from large increases,” he told the board.
Smith began, as he always does, explaining the budget in terms of accomplishing the priorities and goals.
He identified the “primary, overarching budget goal” as “provid[ing] adequate funding to maintain and improve the high quality education” for Wilton’s students in pre-K through age 22.
Breaking that down, Smith listed “major priorities”:
- continuing to address unfinished learning and supporting “social-emotional learning, and trauma-informed instructional practices” in place. Considerations he mentioned include class size, staffing, professional learning, and ongoing program initiatives.
- raise overall mathematics achievement; Smith said the budget reflects priorities to serve that effort.
- begin facilities improvement projects at Middlebrook and WHS, and attend to HVAC ventilation systems now running at max capacity
- support IT hardware replacement plan, no longer done through a technology lease
- support program and curriculum development connected to Portrait of a Graduate (including new WHS course proposals)
There are several assumptions the district makes that must be built into the budget. These include:
- honoring collective bargaining agreements (for wages and benefits)
- complying with state and federal mandates
- special education litigation and compensation costs
- professional learning to target high priority areas
Staffing, Class Size and Enrollment
Smith explained that the FY’23 budget reflects staffing additions that were made at the start of the ’21-’22 school year due to an influx of new students moving into district (that were unanticipated and not budgeted for in the current budget) as well as an outplaced student returning to the district.
In addition, Smith has proposed certified math support at Middlebrook, an additional social worker and a special education paraprofessional.
There will be some staff position reductions as class sizes get shifted, including reductions of two classroom sections at Cider Mill, a WHS library media paraprofessional position, and a .4 WHS certified position.
Looking at enrollment across the district, Smith took pains to point out that the district doesn’t just serve students enrolled in district age Pre-K up until 12th grade.
“When we talk about a grand total of student enrollment, what we’re talking about is the number of students that this budget serves, which includes all of our kids who are within our schools, as well as the students who are outplaced and our students in our Community Steps program,” he said.
Smith said there is a grand total projected of 3,726 students for the 2022-23 school year. That includes 3,631 K-12 students plus an additional 95 students in Community Steps, outplacement programs and pre-K.
Tracking staff changes over time, Smith showed that staff increases have been made in special education, interventionists and paraprofessionals, while certified teaching positions have been slightly reduced and other areas have remained flat.
Smith also included a slide about overall enrollment trends, illustrating an 8% decline in enrollment over the last 20 years, and a 15% decline since the population peak in 2008-2009. District consultants have projected a slight continuing decline and leveling off.
Smith said there will be some increases in outplaced student numbers as well as growth in the Community Steps program. Wilton is adding students at Miller-Driscoll, and decreasing enrollment at the other three schools.
Class sizes is anticipated to change as follows:
- At Miller-Driscoll, in an effort to hold the number of sections flat at 39, the average class size will increase in all three grade levels by about one student.
- Cider Mill class size will likely decrease a bit in third grade but increase in grades 4 -5.
- Middlebrook and WHS class sizes are unanticipated to have changes or enrollment-based staffing changes.
- Smith said the Genesis program may have some tuition-paying students enroll from out-of-district next year.
Smith identified the major categories that make up the budget, noting that it was “no surprise” that salaries, insurance and benefits make up the largest portion at 79.23%.
Not only are salaries the largest item in the budget, but the largest change year-over-year is also on the salary line, to the tune of about $1.35 million. Along the same lines, employee benefits (at 13% of the budget) is increasing by $321,684.
Increased use of digital resources and equipment have substantial increases as well: Smith attributed an almost $140,000 increase to digital resource use and just over $500,000 for equipment purchases as the district moved away from leasing technology hardware (primarily Chromebooks for students in grades 3-8 and teacher laptops). More expensive utilities will also account for an additional $120,000 increase as well.
Some smaller increases were attributed to furniture replacement, music instrument replacement (deferred in past years), athletic purchases, HVAC automation upgrades at WHS, science equipment, and Little Theater light board replacement.
Smith explained that just prior to the pandemic, the district had developed a developed a proposal to perform facility upgrades at Cider Mill, Middlebrook and WHS. The plan was executed at Cider Mill, and now he’d like to move ahead on the other two schools, especially as the projects have been deferred “for a couple of years.”
“It’s my sincere hope that we can garner the support of both the Board of Finance and Board of Selectmen to begin this work, at least at the middle school. And then we really need to have some deep conversations about the conditions of our facilities and develop some shared commitment to ensuring that we are able to dedicate dollars annually so we can appropriately address these facilities,” Smith cautioned.
The work would include replacing old and worn out carpeting with tile flooring; upgraded lighting to high efficiency, LED lights; replacing all ceiling tiles; painting all classrooms and corridors; moisture mitigation; and elements unique to each building. Budgeted funds include a moving company to move things back and forth.
Smith said the total cost for Middlebrook alone is $1.2 million, which he is proposing to split over two years. The first phase would be $610,000 for FY’23. Under Smith’s plan the first phase of the WHS work, at $557,000 would be pushed out to FY’24.
The remaining phases would be projected for FY’25 (at a total of $1.5 million) and FY’26 ($1.9 million).
Smith needs the support of the two other major town boards, given that this year the BOF and the BOS are considering moving forward with a BOE operating capital account. In past years, maintenance projects that haven’t been bonded have been part of the overall BOE operating budget. But when projects get delayed, the money goes back to the town’s general fund and the BOE “loses” it.
Maintenance projects have been deferred in the past because they tend to be the first things cut from the budget when the BOE is told to find savings. Moving such projects out of the operating budget into an operating capital budget would help likely alleviate delaying the projects further down the road.
However, if the BOE has an operating capital account, it would be drawn from the BOS/Town budget instead. So it’s likely that the BOS and BOF will have a lot of questions and discussion about this part of Smith’s budget, if town officials opt to implement such a capital account for the school district.
If looked at together, Smith’s FY’23 operating budget increase request ($2.54 million) and proposed operating capital spending ($610,000) comes to a 3.71% total increase over FY’22.
District Perspective — Compared to other DRG districts
Smith spoke to the BOE about how Wilton’s proposed spending for FY’23 compares to the districts in Wilton’s District Reference Group (DRG).
“Wilton, in the years that I’ve been here, has typically had one of the lowest annual cost increases relative to our DRG counterparts. And this year, the story is the same. Even if you add to our number the operating capital proposal, we’re still one of the lowest proposed increases, I think with the exception of Weston, in this proposed fiscal year,” he said.
Then Smith addressed per pupil spending. He said there were two sources of information to draw data to compare across the different districts. Depending on which source is used, the data has sometimes been used to say Wilton spends more than its counterparts per pupil — in other words, for critics of BOE spending, more than it should.
The first source is the Edsight database. Smith said the information is typically dated, sometimes more than a year old. “If you’re looking for real time information, it’s not the best source. If you’re looking for comparative information, it’s a great source. You just have to understand that it’s a couple years old,” Smith said.
Using that data, Smith said looking at the past three years shows Wilton in “solidly” the middle range of spending compared to similar schools.
The second source of data with more real-time information is the CT State Department of Education Bureau of Fiscal Services, which reports information twice a year. (Smith said January data is expected next week.) Smith said those figures show only Ridgefield and New Canaan with lower per pupil expenditures than Wilton.
Budget Pays Off in Student Accomplishments & Opportunity
Smith concluded by saying that the budget pays for two things: “performance and opportunity.”
“We should all feel very proud of our students’ accomplishments. Annually, our students are recognized for myriad achievements, in the classroom, on the stage and on the playing field. Our district ranks very highly, both in the state and nationally. We are routinely among the top 1% of all districts ranked by US News and World Report. Nearly all of our graduates go on to post secondary education. And many, if not the majority, attend top universities here in the US and around the globe. To a person, every recent graduate makes a point to tell me how well he or she was prepared for college,” Smith said.
He also pointed to student performance on AP tests and the standardized ACT tests.
From here, the budget will be discussed at several upcoming meetings (which the public is able to watch online).
- Budget workshops are scheduled for Jan. 25-27, during which building principals and administrators will answer deep-dive questions on school- and area-specific budgets for the BOE.
- The Board of Education will continue its discussions and deliberations on the budget on Thursday, Feb. 3.
- On Thursday, Feb. 10, there will be a joint meeting between the BOE and the BOF.
- On Thursday, Feb. 17, the BOE will vote on accepting a finalized budget as its own, at which point it changes from a “superintendent’s proposed budget” to the “BOE’s proposed budget.
- At a TBD date, the Board of Finance will hold a public hearing on that BOE budget to get public feedback and questions.
- Based on public feedback, the BOF may ask for general changes from the BOE.
- Then, on Tuesday, May 3, the town holds the Annual Town Meeting (ATM), to consider the BOE budget along with the BOS-proposed Town budget. Voting begins immediately following the close of the ATM and continues on Saturday, May 7.