At last night’s Board of Education meeting (Thursday, Jan. 12), Wilton Schools’ superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith presented the FY’18 school budget put together by the building administrators and Smith’s central office team. It reflects a 0.00-percent increase over FY’17.

Following the meeting, Smith told GOOD Morning Wilton, “There has never been a 0.0-percent increase in the last 34 years.”

According to materials handed out at the meeting, the 2016-17 adjusted budget stands at $80,569,905, and the presentation the superintendent will make this evening shows superintendent’s request for the 2017-18 budget at $80,569,905. It reflects a staff request of 572.34–down from 584.24, or a decrease of  8.10.

Early this year the Board of Finance gave the district a guidance not just to come in flat but actually of reducing the budget year-to-year by 1.25-percent.

BoE chair Bruce Likly started the meeting with a statement commending the district administrators.

“I could not be more proud. I know it wasn’t easy. I know Dr. Smith asked each of you to turn every stone, to assume there are no secret cows, to assume it’s not business as usual. I know you looked at class sizes. I know you looked at everything. I want to commend the work that you did, and I recognize it wasn’t easy. It’s something you should really be proud of, across the district in education and technology and support services, it’s truly, truly commendable.”

Glen Hemmerle, the BoE member who, along with fellow BoE member Chris Stroup, sat on the business operations subcommittee with two members of the Board of Finance, and has worked closely with them on budget objectives, acknowledged the intense work it took to get the budget to this stage.

“It has been a labor for Dr. Smith and his staff,” he said. “We recognize clearly the guidance that was given, however the presentation is slightly above that guidance. We feel comfortable in the presentation we’re going to make–but there are some concerns. We’re focused primarily on protecting what happens at the classroom level, our teaching and learning objectives. It has not been an easy task to get to the number. We on the committee feel very strongly that to go beyond what you see today puts a great deal at risk of what we’re trying to accomplish as a district.”

Superintendent Smith started his presentation by saying, “We were working up until late last night to finalize this. We had been working for months with the understanding that the BoF and the BoS are trying to manage the mill rate increases, and we believe as the largest consumer of taxpayer dollars we need to be strong partners in that work. That being said, we have committed to a pretty aggressive educational reform agenda, and we need to make sure we’re meeting our priorities and maintaining a very high standard of public education. We had to make an effort to balance educational needs and priorities with the need to help manage the town’s finances.”

Among the highlights:

  • The district has been able to accomplish savings through a reduction in salaries, through a reduction in staffing and thanks to a number of retirees “who will be replaced with less experienced teachers who come with less expensive price tags,” Smith said.
  • Since FY’15, there’s been a net loss in enrollment of 260 students.
  • In that same period, there’s been a decrease in staffing of about 25 total staff members, which according to Smith, “has tracked enrollment reductions.”
  • Smith said that through savings and their work on the budget, they’ve been able to absorb the $1,000,000 contracted salary increase for the teachers.
  • Smith pointed to what he called “good news”:  “In student outplacements, we’ve been working to bring students back to the district, and we’re looking to have fewer than 30 students outplaced,” a number Smith said was lower than it’s been for a long time.
  • However, Smith pointed out a change over the last few years in SPED transportation, noting that the number increases year over year–”dramatically” despite efforts on the part of the district. “We’re still seeing an increase.” From FY’15, that line item increased from $731,019 to $1,008,907for FY’18.

Smith noted that the budget reflects “educational choices and what we think is best for kids,” explaining that there might have been areas that were consciously not cut because the educators felt to do so would hurt their educational mission.

“One of the major choices is in class size. Our class sizes work for us now, in the 22, 23 range, with some variances. The other value choice is around the team structure at Middlebrook. We believe that’s the best structure for kids and so when you look at staff-to-student ratios there, there is a difference because you can’t make dramatic staffing changes without de-teaming,” he said, adding that there are similar choices with the numbers of custodial staff because of the way the district chooses to make sure the buildings are cleaned and maintained.

Smith urged the BoE members to communicate those ideas to the public as the budget is presented outside of the board. “It will be important to keep the conversation about value choices absolutely at the forefront.”

Likly agreed.

“I think we need to help the community understand that you’re looking at really difficult problems, and that they’re not being hashed out on television. You’re having the discussion with your staff and not in public. We need to let them know that.”

Discussion

Following the presentation, several of the BoE members spoke about whether or not a budget with no increase from the previous year would damage the educational services provided by the schools.

Hemmerle noted:  “My grave concern is to look at our performance in terms of our budget increases over the last three years, relative to the school districts in our DRG, we’re not keeping pace. What is exciting however is that our students are keeping pace, they’re more than keeping pace. Our staff, our teachers, our administrators have found a way to continue to demonstrate excellence and outstanding performance among our students. If we do less than what we’re looking at this year, I don’t know if that’s sustainable and I question whether or not we can.”

“The issue for me is, from a community perspective, you look at housing values, mill rate increases. In the work done by the [Economic] Development Committee, the schools were our shining star, the schools were the number one thing that people considered when moving to Wilton. If we show a lack of support and a willingness to fund the schools as necessary, then I think we put a great deal of risk on the community’s ability to sustain its value and desirability.”

Hemmerle also noted that New Canaan is “increasing their education budget by 2-percent, 3-percent, while Wilton is 1.0-percent, 1.5-percent, 0.0-percent. That raises questions.”

BoE member Laura Schwemm applauded the school officials not only for putting together a lean budget but also for “living the budget.”

“I hope people understand how fortunate we are to have the staff we have. Everything is moving so fast, in terms of education, there’s something new, or the state is doing something new or the national trend is something new, or colleges now expect these skills. Just keeping up with that takes time, and if we don’t have any padding anywhere, we should just be grateful for the staff we have. Hopefully it will be sustainable, and hopefully people will support this–or maybe they’ll support even a little bit more.”

Likly pointed out that even with decreases in enrollment and staffing, the costs of staffing is increasing by close to 3.0-percent, including benefits and insurance, although the superintendent has tried to rein those costs in as well. He also noted that transportation costs are rising as well. In light of that, he said, the fact that the budget is flat is something that is worth noting.

“We have to recognize that at a 0.0, we are aggressively and exciting ways investing in the future of our children, you’re pulling a rabbit out of a hat here,” Likly said.

He also warned that even with a flat budget, there will still be people who are unhappy the superintendent didn’t turn in a budget reflecting a reduction from FY’17.

“You could truly turn water into wine, or lead into gold and there would be a small portion of this community that is convinced that we’re hiding something. It’s unfortunate but we are going to have to address that. They are going to come out with bizarre questions, they’re going to be convinced that there’s millions of dollars of savings. We’re going to have to make sure that we do our due diligence to make sure that isn’t happening.”

Likly commended Smith for the amount of work that went into the preparation of the budget, and noted that the work began with administrators, BoE members and BoF members back in June 2016. “I know we’ve put more work into this budget book than we’ve ever put in since I’ve sat on the BoE. I can stand up and say in front of mother, God and country, we put time into this budget.”