Last night the Wilton Board of Finance held a meeting at Middlebrook School Auditorium to present the proposed budget for the Wilton schools for FY 2015 to the public. As it stands now, the Board of Education has proposed an operating budget of $79.15 million, which reflects an increase of 3.95 percent, or $3.011 million over the preceding year’s budget.

The purpose of the meeting was for town officials to explain to the public how the BoE arrived at the numbers they were presenting as well as to hear comments and feedback from residents. The Board of Finance will hold another, similar public hearing tonight to go over the Board of Selectmen‘s proposed budget for next year. After hearing public comment, the town financiers will begin working on finalizing the budget to present to the town at the town meeting on May 6 for a vote.

Both the BoE and the BoS came in with budgets above the suggested 1.75 percent increase guidelines from the BoF.

Despite the information being so pertinent to the taxes residents will potentially pay, the meeting was very sparsely attended by members of the public–there were approximately only 40 or so residents who were not public officials or school employees in the audience.  A handful of residents spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting, and comments seemed to follow the similar pattern of years past:  a few residents who characterized school spending as too high and not considerate of senior citizens who cannot afford continued tax increases on fixed incomes spoke, followed by parents–mostly moms–of children who receive special services and who spoke in support of the  budget.

Here are the basic budget numbers, as presented by Lynne Vanderslice, vice chair of the BoF, and  Bruce Likly, chair of the BoE.

  • The BoE has requested a 3.95 percent increase or an additional $3.011 million over this year’s funding.
  • The BoS has requested a 3.74 percent increase or just under $1.2 million over this year’s funding.
  • Based on the numbers as presented by both boards, the town is looking at a 3.61 percent required Mill rate increase for FY 2015

According to Vanderslice, “We have less money available to us to reduce the mill rate through prior year surpluses. We have $1.166 million less (44 percent decrease) in funds to do that this year. She noted that on the grand list (the value of all our homes, personal properties, commercial properties, etc.), “We’re seeing some small growth in 2015:  about .74 percent growth. about one-third less that what we saw before the recession. It’s where we think we’re going to stay–we’re not expecting some big jumps like we did a number of years ago.”

Vanderslice explained that the BoF asks whether they think taxpayers can absorb these increases. They look at the real estate market, and while they see some improvement, “home values are NOT what they were pre-recession. Unemployment has come down: it was 4 percent in 2008, over 6 percent a number of years, but we’ve come down to 5.6 percent. One caveat is that the labor pool has increased in Wilton, so even though we even have as many people working in Wilton as in 2008, there’s actually more people in Wilton looking for a job.”

She also noted that the BoF is “mindful that we’ve had years of deferred maintenance and building for both the Board of Education and the Board of Selectmen.”

Board of Education Budget

The chair of the BoE, Bruce Likly, introduced his own presentation of the BoE budget details with his own argument for supporting the higher-than-recommended budget.

“While I’m a fiscal conservative, and believe that numbers are always too high, I also understand that quality has a price. There are more than a few people in town who believe the budget is too low. I believe the budget is a thoughtful balance of all views and perspectives, and deserves the town’s full support.”

He pointed out the many ways that the district is a high performing one, and said that the high budget numbers are due, in large part, to the high number of mandates from the state, calling them “all very, very expensive.”  He listed busing, special education services and reporting, standardized testing, teacher evaluation, student success plans, and free lunches as among the programs the school district has to comply with, noting that “we do have a moral responsibility as well as a legal responsibility to deliver those.”

Citing the large drivers of the budget, Likly mentioned that 2.6 percent of the salary increases are based on contractual agreements. He said, “We have a very senior and very qualified staff. They’re also very expensive. Usually when they retire, we can hire less expensive staff.”

He also pointed out that the districts health benefits costs are only projected to go up a half of a percent, calling that “pretty incredible.”

Likly said that increases in Special Education costs accounts for 50 percent of the total budget increase, asserting that such increases are due in large part to outplacement.

In addition, security improvements–including two new security personnel–have added to the budget.

He tried to put in perspective that the suggested budget guidelines set by the BoF are difficult to reach because of costs the district finds out of their own control. “If you look just at contractual obligations for salary increases for existing staff, our transportation costs and health benefits–a total increase of 1.61 percent– I point this out purely because of the guidance of 1.75 percent that we would like to be at but we find exceedingly difficult to get to.”

Likly outlined not only obligations the district has to meet, but also “proactive changes” the BoE was trying to implement with the budget for next year, including creating Cider Mill Collaborative Teams, hiring a new math teacher at Middlebrook for special education and general education, creating an AP Computer Science course at the high school, and instituting new changes and upgrades in security, including the hiring of two new additional staff members, a new school resource officer and a Threat Assessment Coordinator.

He ended by saying, “We are a high performing school district. While our costs are higher than we would like, we are working hard to contain them where we can, as we focus on our outstanding achievement and the district’s results, which are attributed to the community’s support. Our schools are our town’s greatest asset. They’re the primary reason people move to Wilton. They’re what keep our property values up and unfortunately keep our taxes up as well. The reality is that quality costs money and quality is worth it. There are some here in town who believe this budget is already too low, and they make a good case. This budget is a thoughtful balance of all perspectives. I support it fully.”

Public Comment

Alex Ruskevich: Wilton has the highest growth from 2000 to the current time in cost per pupil of all of our neighboring towns. We went from 53rd out of 169 to 25 in the state of CT. We’ve grown dramatically in our cost per pupil. Of the 15 of the town above have a population of less than 650 students. So we’re in the top 10. We’ve done quite well with the BoE and expenditures. We’ve spent a lot. When you talk about salaries: you can’t control the cost of salaries because it’s contractual, but you can control the number of people. You can have hiring freezes. There isn’t a necessity for replacing everyone. Are all the courses necessary? Mandarin–nobody signed up. We have to look if people really need them? Look at sharing a teacher with another town or doing online courses for people who want these really unique items. How about outsourcing some of the functions–human resources, IT. We have three different IT departments. We’re spending a lot on IT–I’m a former IBM salesman. Do we need to replace computers every three years? I don’t think so. We say there are things we HAVE to have. The athletic budget of 14 percent. We’re playing $2,400 for each student playing hockey–is this a necessary thing for education? We have to look where we’re spending money and evaluate it. The schools keep the value of our houses up–but the last recession they didn’t keep the value up. People are not moving in because the taxes are too high. We’re losing people ,and the flip side–taxes go up and we lose some of our citizens.

Ed Papp:  I’ve said before–when a child enters kindergarten the taxes will double by the time they are in 12th grade. that’s way over the top. What percent of the BoE doubling budget is attributed to new programs and what percent is attributable to salaries. We are not offering new programs to our students, we’re just offering new salaries to our teachers. It represents a toxic mix of politicians and special interest groups. You need to set an example to other districts, to Hartford and to Washington, not just continue doling out money to special interest groups.

Joe Brenner:  I don’t believe schools are Wilton’s primary asset; I believe the children are. Special education services. I’m speaking on behalf of a couple people in town who are not represented tonight and are concerned about this. We need an independent auditor. Now it would appear that basic, current processes in special services, especially those driving the annual double digit increases, that in that case an audit would be especially valuable. I’d be happy to assist. Shouldn’t the most expensive, fastest growing component of the BoE budget be the subject of the most transparency? We do that for the Special education students, for compliance with the law, for the integrity and financial confidence of this community, and for the taxpayers.

Michael Graupner:  People who say they come to Wilton for the schools, we also have to understand that before 20 years ago, there were generation who came to Wilton primarily because they were trying to find a home they could afford. You have two audiences. God bless our young people, young parents with kids. But we sometimes forget our elderly who have lived here 30-40 years, paying taxes all that time–perhaps they put their kids through school, and since then they continue to pay and they really get nothing out of it. There are some of us who want to stay here. So far the town has not done much for us–you cannot say a senior center, new roads and a fresh coat of paint does the trick. There are two groups, and when we add onto our budget year after year after year by 1.5, 2, 3, 4 percent to people who are on a budget that is not getting added to, that is a real problem for us. and I never feel that is addressed by this group. I would ask, every time you have a chance, remind people that if they feel we’re not spending enough on the schools, or the police, firemen or anything else, they are very free to write a check. I think there should be a box at the Village Market, that says, ‘We’re not doing enough for your kids? Write a check and drop it in here.’

What are we doing to unload or get out from under this burden of having to deal with teacher unions? Why do we constantly allow ourselves to be held hostage by teacher unions in this town? Do we look at charter schools or alternative ways of educating our kids? I’m not suggesting that’s the model for Wilton. but how do we do great education, without having to listen to union people telling us what to do.

Pamela Carlson: I support the budget. The mandates are real. I volunteer a lot in the schools. One example is this SBAC testing, where every student has to do the test on the computer, and the library is going to shut down for weeks because we don’t have enough computers.

Carolina Corrigan: I support the school and the school budget. I have one foot in special education budget. It disappoints me that this is becoming a special ed vs. regular ed. These are all kids. It doesn’t matter if they have special needs or some sort of need. It can’t be one against the other.

Mary Jane Reis: I’m also part of the special needs contingency. For those who want to know why 25 years ago we didn’t have this huge special needs costs, you can consider the exponential rise in autism; you can consider that for more severe children–kids with feeding tubes who would have been dead 25 years ago? Well they’re here and unless you want to pull the plug they’re not gonig anywhere. It is sad to hear how people talk about us and think about us. For those who say we should write a check, there are people in town who do donate significant amounts of money. I also have a dad in town who is a senior, and I think he would support the budget.

Rebecca LePage:  When we talk about preparing for the future. I was one of those people who cost the district a lot of money. My daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor when she was 15 months. Without the services from the school, she probably wouldn’t be able to do 75 percent of the things she can do today. It’s not her fault that she has this condition, and we can’t punish these kids, they didn’t ask to be born with special needs, but they do have a civil right to get the services they require to be successful and to achieve all that’s possible for them to achieve.

Chris Stroup, [member of the BoE] I was one of the members of the BoE who voted against the budget. I believe that we are underspending on education. I’ve come to that belief over four months by listening to the administration talk about its spending priorities. We’re underspending on education. Not withstanding the union, the teachers are underpaid, and do an exceptional job on behalf of our children. I asked some years ago about increasing tax credits for the elderly. I would be in support of additional tax credits, and rather than $1 million in credit, maybe $3 million tax credit would take the pain away from those who do have a difficult time with increasing real estate taxes, so that we can continue to fund the excellent education we have in town.

Welcome the public to BoF deliberation starting April 1.