When the public hearing on the Board of Education’s proposed FY’23 budget got underway Wednesday night, Mar. 23, attendance in the audience was sparse. There were only about 10-12 members of the public who weren’t either an elected official on one of Wilton’s three main boards or a town employee. What’s more, half of those ‘civilians’ were former members of the boards as well.
It’s a signal to the Boards of Finance, Education and Selectmen of the uphill battle they face to get residents engaged in the budget process.
Board of Finance Sets the Stage
Michael Kaelin made his first budget hearing presentation as BOF chair, and he explained the context for how the BOF will begin to consider what to do with the budgets put together by the BOE and the BOS — whether to reduce them or bring them as proposed to the Annual Town Meeting and Wilton voters.
First Kaelin laid out the numbers that are the building blocks the BOF members will use to calculate the mill rate. (These numbers assume the budgets are accepted by the BOF as submitted.)
- BOE FY’23 budget request: $87,571,064, a 3.26% ($2,766,849) increase over last year
- BOS FY’23 budet request: $33,943,364, a 1.37% ($457,878) increase over last year
- Debt Service: $9,025,210, a 2.16% ($198,814) decrease over last year
- TOTAL Operating Funds Required: $131,845,034, a 2.37% increase ($3,056,172) from last year
- Tax Relief for Elderly/Disabled: $1,230,750, no change from last year
- Revenues other than FY’23 property taxes: $5,597,801, a 2.83% ($154,152) increase over last year
- Use of Excess Fund Balance: $3,667,037, a 24.52% ($1,191,003) decrease over last year. [This leaves a FY’23 General Fund balance of $13,184,503, or 10% of the town’s total operating budget.]
- Property Taxes to be collected: $122,580,196
MILL RATE LEVY
- Total needed to levy: $123,810,946 (combining property taxes and elderly/disabled relief)
- Net Taxable Grand List (Collectable): $4,357,995,281, a 1.45% ($62,178,642) increase over last year
- Mill Rate: 28.4101, a 1.94% (0.5416) increase over last year
Kaelin was very specific when explaining what the role of the Board of Finance is in the budget process, especially over the next few weeks leading up to the Town Meeting. In developing the mill rate and deciding whether or not to leave the budgets as proposed by the BOS and BOE, the BOF takes into account several factors. The first two were very straightforward.
- the views of the Town’s citizens
- the financial resources of the town
He was specific when it came to the third responsibility, quoting from the Town Charter:
3. The extent to which, in the Board of Finance’s collective judgment, the BOE and BOS can find savings within their respective budgets.
With this point, he reiterated how it was “important for everyone to understand,” what the BOF can and can’t do — with regard to the school budget.
“The Board of Finance does not have line-item authority over any line item in the Board of Ed budget. But the Board of Finance does have a responsibility to review each line item, of both of Board of Selectmen budget and Board of Ed budget, in order to determine whether savings can be achieved in the overall budget,” Kaelin said.
In other words, even if the BOF can’t tell the Board of Education what to cut, the BOF members can dig into the details of the budget and offer their opinions about where savings might be found.
The last factor Kaelin articulated was:
4. The “appropriateness of revenue, debt service and General Fund balance amounts.” He explained that means the BOF needs to determine whether townspeople can bear the cost associated with the proposed mill rate.
Residents can still make their voices heard by attending the upcoming BOF budget deliberation meetings, and being sure to vote after the Annual Town Meeting.
Board of Education in the Spotlight
Next Board of Education Chair Deborah Low took the podium. It was her job to demonstrate why the budget compiled by school administrators, led by Superintendent Kevin Smith, was as tight as possible but could also maintain the high quality of education Wilton Public Schools are known for — with the not-so-subtle reminder that supporting the school budget is what keeps Wilton an attractive place to live.
“We are proud of our schools and the exemplary education it provides for our students. That means, no surprise, that the schools were the reason most often cited for why people moved to Wilton,” she said.
She then revealed an unusual piece of information: the budget that had been set and approved by the BOE at a 3.26% increase over last year’s budget — and submitted to the BOF — had changed. Just that day, Smith had reduced the capital operating request (the funds budgeted for renovations at Middlebrook and Wilton High School) by $205,002 after learning that some of the necessary renovations could be bonded.
The change would drop the district’s overall requested budget increase from 3.25% to 3.02%. It’s important to note that Low said, “The budget could come down.” The bonding projects that get presented to the voters for approval is up to the Board of Selectmen, and this year there are many potential capital improvement projects vying for that honor.
Her next slides explained the district’s “continued excellence,” rooted in the vision of building attributes in Wilton graduates that “are key to success in a rapidly changing world.” The foundation for that is the “rigorous and comprehensive” academic programs.
Low called the district’s staff the “backbone” of Wilton’s success, and said it was critical to continue to provide them with ongoing training. Notably, she spent several minutes focused on the merits of the district’s implementation of teacher coaches in the core academic areas of language arts, social studies, math and science, likening them to coaches needed by a “team of top athletes.” Coaching is an area regularly pointed at in discussions around places to find budget reductions.
In fact, Low devoted more time explaining each of the next few slides, regarding staffing, attention to social/emotional/mental health needs, and special needs — and the need to fund these areas to maintain the district’s excellence. These major areas are also in focus in discussions around possible budget cuts, and she explained the impact each area has on the budget.
Low said the goal of keeping class sizes reasonable is a key driver in staffing. Class size is driven by enrollment. Based on that, the budget reflects the addition of one teacher at Miller-Driscoll, and a reduction of two teachers at Cider Mill and FTE time at WHS. She highlighted that federal grants are supporting two teachers at Miller-Driscoll.
Low said excellence also requires funding to support social, emotional and mental health needs, all of which have increased in recent years, especially exacerbated by the COVID pandemic.
Low said another area driving the district’s budget is the importance of supporting students with special education needs. The mandated age range of students increased to 22 years old, and there are 575 students enrolled, “each one has an IEP, an Individualized Educational Program, which is a contract between the school and the family it services.”
Wilton has built strong programs that are able to keep more students in-district, which Low said are more cost-effective and reduce costly outplacements. All of this points to increased staffing, although there is also some revenue from general education students who attend the district’s Pre-K program.
Maintaining the high level of digital resources and instruction in today’s technology-dependent world is critical to the district’s excellence, Low said. This has impacts on costs for devices as well as improvements to the schools’ libraries transforming to Library Learning Commons.
Low pointed out that budget impact is high in this area this year as the district moves from a lease agreement to a purchase agreement on certain devices, adding an overall $437,000.
Building maintenance — the area where Low says the BOE hopes to reduce its budget request by just over $200,000 — involves significant interior upgrades in Middlebrook at WHS.
“There are ceiling tiles, upgraded lighting, replacing wornout carpeting, the tile, renovating Field House restrooms, redoing the Field House floor, replacing some unit ventilators and replacing three elevators,” she detailed.
She also added that the district accepts financial support to improve facilities in some areas from the Wilton Education Foundation, sports team boosters, and private donations.
The next several slides show the major categories in the operating budget and where they increased. As always, the largest portion — $69 million (79%) — of the budget funds salary and benefits. The largest percentage increase was in equipment (224%).
This slide shows the impact of each component on the overall budget increase. For example if only salaries were increased year-to-year, the budget would go up 1.59%.
This chart shows the dollar amount of each component’s increase.
This year’s staffing increase is a total of 5.45 staff members. Low pointed out that 4.25 of the total are paraprofessionals, which are related to IEP agreements.
Low acknowledged that the district’s overall enrollment continues to decline as it has for the last several years. The only individual school this doesn’t hold true for is Miller-Driscoll (Pre-K to Grade 2).
Looking at enrollment leads to questions about Per Pupil Expenditure as another metric of looking at the district’s cost.
As Low explained, “If enrollment goes down in the district, especially if it’s incremental and especially if it’s spread across multiple grade levels, the district per pupil expenditures typically increase — if the programs, the infrastructure and the service levels stayed same or improve.”
Low showed two sources that compare Wilton’s per pupil expenditures to other towns in Wilton’s District Reference Group (similar school districts).
Low emphasized the care the BOE and school officials take in putting together the budgets, with the goal of “build[ing] a budget proposal that accomplishes what the district needs and is fiscally responsible. Obviously, in building the budget, … making tough choices, some requests are denied; some are reduced; … some requests [are] phased in over several years,” Low said, adding, “We also look for efficiencies,” including shared employees with the town and other areas of savings.
Finally Low compared Wilton’s budget increases over the last five years with those in the other DRG towns. “I think we stack up fairly favorably in terms of being fiscally responsible.”
She concluded with more district success stories.
Hoping for more resident input, Kaelin made a plea for residents to provide the BOF with feedback on the budgets. There were only six people who took the opportunity to speak at the public hearing.
The first was Deb McFadden, who served on the BOS until Nov. 2021. “I want to publicly state, I support this budget,” she told the officials. “I fall into the population of people who don’t have anybody in the [school] system, but I’m willing to pay to keep it to the quality we have.”
Next to speak was Olga Zargos-Traub, who said she moved to Wilton from Norwalk with her husband and three children from Norwalk, where she said for 15 years the community “had to fight year after year with the Board of Finance who continued to slash the Board of Ed budget.”
“We moved to Wilton because we were tired of fighting for education …[and] having to convince people of the importance of a robust, thriving school system. We moved to Wilton for the top-notch school system. We moved to Wilton for value Wilton places on education. Now I will tell you how I’m frustrated and disappointed that here we are again, trying to convince another board of finance of the importance of education,” she said, adding, “No one wants their taxes to go up. But if that means keeping our taxes at the same level at the expense of our children’s education, as a taxpaying citizen of Wilton I choose education.”
She concluded by asking the BOF to keep the BOE budget as proposed so that the Wilton district “can continue to be able to provide the quality of education that Wilton is known for, the quality of education that my family and many other families have moved here for. I ask you to choose education.”
Stephen Hudspeth echoed the previous speaker. “When others urged you to cut, cut, cut, you have not done that because the strength and vitality of our town is based in large part on our schools,” he said, pointing to the recent Niche.com survey that ranked the best places to live and gave Wilton schools an A-plus. “Education counts enormously, it’s what brings people to our town, it’s what supports our town in many ways.”
Hudspeth noted that his children have long since graduated from the district. “They got a great education here and have wonderful lives. And a lot of that is based on the foundation they got from Wilton schools.”
Tammy Thornton agreed that the school district is why she and her family moved to Wilton. “My husband and I both are very proud to approve this proposed budget and in fact approve the overall mill rate to support the town [budget] as well.”
Another resident advocating for support of the school budget was Michelle Haggerty. “It’s what brings many people here, it’s what brought us here.”
The last speaker was Michael Salit, who thanked the members of both boards for their time and dedication toward building budgets, especially in the face of challenges. He acknowledged outside influences driving up costs as well as contractual salary obligations for staff, noting that “teachers generally are underpaid for the considerable role they play in our society.”
He urged the BOF to think beyond the idea of the school district being the only reason for people to live in Wilton. To begin, Salit referenced the need expressed by the BOE budget to play catch-up following the pandemic as one of the cost drivers in the budget.
“Certainly children have suffered as a result of this pandemic, we’ve all suffered. At the same time it should be brought to [your] attention … we still have people in town who are suffering as a result of what happened in 2008. We have people who are suffering from the pandemic, people who are trying to make ends meet.”
Salit referenced the speakers who spoke before him as “moving” and with “an emotional component.” He compared that to the presentation that the Board of Selectmen would make on behalf of the town budget the following night. “It’s going to be a business-like meeting. There’s not going to be that emotional component. It’s going to be black and white. I’ve been told over the years that running the school system is not like running a business. I would argue that.”
He concluded by asking the Board of Finance to be “vigilant … but fair.” “Education is the essence of who we are… [But] the school system can’t be the only item that hooks people to Wilton. It’s an important part of it, but it can’t be the only thing.”
The video recording of the entire public hearing on the Board of Education budget is now available on the town website.
The public hearing on the Board of Selectmen’s proposed budget takes place Thursday evening, Mar. 24 at 7 p.m. at the Middlebrook Auditorium.
Sparse attendance may reflect citizens’ belief that town officials do not listen to their budget concerns. Stems from the Miller Driscoll boondoggle. If enrollment is down, expenses should go down …and total budget growth should not be greater than the increase in the Grand List. I encourage the BOF to insist on cuts despite the (perennial) pandering of several speakers.
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