Wilton Public Schools’ Superintendent Dr. Gary Richards presented his recommended operating budget for the 2014-2015 school year at a public hearing last Thursday night, Jan. 23 at Middlebrook School. As it stands currently, the administration is asking for an operating budget of $79,812,536, which is an increase of 4.82 percent, or approximately $3.67 million, over the current year’s budget.
The public hearing was held to get feedback from town residents, which the superintendent called “the most important part” of the presentation. “The purpose of this is to hear what your thoughts are about the budget, and we’re eager to do so.”
Yet the meeting was very sparsely attended, with only approximately 40 people who weren’t school employees or press in the audience. Out of that small group, ten or so residents came to the microphones to comment, and all spoke in support of the budget.
What the superintendent and his 4.82 percent budget now face, however, is a request from the Board of Finance to limit the year-to-year budget increase to only 1.75 percent.
That means unless the Board of Finance hears otherwise from Wilton residents, they may force the Board of Education to make cuts to the proposed school budget.
What’s In the Superintendent’s Budget
Richards pointed out that the main areas driving the budget are contractually obligated raises and costs: “Most of the increases are due to contracted increases for salaries and health benefits, outplacement and special education, and security, those were the big drivers.”
He broke out the way the overall increases are generated: 50 percent is non-special education related, 43 percent is related to special education costs, and 7 percent is attributed to security.
“Security—it’s new this year. We placed funding for two new positions; this represents a $247,000 increase over our current total spending for security. We want to make that clear that it’s a new component in the budget this year.” Richards also pointed out that it’s a cost that the town has asked the school to include entirely in its budget, rather than share.
Richards explained that the town’s Security Task Force made recommendations to add two new employees–an additional school resource officer and a mental health professional who would help with promoting security. The mental health professional would work primarily at the middle and high schools. “The task force put a job description together, it has to do with threat assessment and working with students to make sure if there are kids with problems that could lead to very serious action to themselves or to others, that we need to intervene.”
He noted that there is already currently one SRO in Wilton, who is on the police department budget, but that the officer is “spread very thin.” Richards added, “There’s a real sense at the secondary level to have greater presence. The SROs are important partners in promoting security in our schools.”
One got the sense that administrators were grateful for the recommendation of additional security and attention to the issues of school climate and safety, but that they also wanted to make sure residents appreciated that they were being asked to fully cover the total cost of the town-recommended plan.
Employee Salary and Benefits
Richards discussed budgeted salary increases, which have all been contractually negotiated already: “About 51 percent of our salary budget goes to classroom teachers and they represent 31 percent of the total budget. About 82 percent of our money goes to employees who are working directly with our students. This number would be even higher if you were to add the interactions of secretaries, administrators and other staff who work with children.”
Employee benefits represent 19 percent of the budget, and Richards said there was an “improving story” when it comes to health benefits. “We’re continuing to try to control our healthcare costs. It’s the first year we’ve put in a high-deductible health plan, and we’ll be trying to expand that to non-union staff and other employees. The result of doing this is that we have saved about $600,000. It’s a very, very significant savings. Health benefits represents 15 percent of the total budget.”
Richards proposed a total increase of 9.01 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff members across the schools, which he explained is based on enrollment needs and the ability to redeploy staff. That number also includes the new security personnel.
The 2013-14 budget was built on a projected enrollment of 4,274 students; at the start of the school year however, the schools had an actual enrollment of 4,319, or 45 more students than they had budgeted for in 2012-13. Next year, enrollment is projected to stay flat for next year, and based on these projections administrators at each individual school made staffing changes: two classroom teaching positions will be eliminated at Miller-Driscoll where enrollment is projected to drop, but one additional teacher will be hired for Middlebrook and three new teachers will join WHS, again due to larger student numbers there.
Richards pointed out that the proposed budget reflects at attempts at keeping class size “fairly consistent with where we’ve been this year.”
Richards outlined special education costs, pointing out that, “it represents 23.2 percent of our total budget…and that the majority of the increase comes from outplacements and salaries to existing staff members that are contractually negotiated.”
Some of the special ed services Richards highlighted are contracted with providers outside the schools. He talked about this during a section on contracted services. “Contracted services represents 13 percent of our total budget. The driver is outplacement. We have approximately 31 students whose needs are so severe we can’t provide service for them in this district, and they’re outplaced.” He explained that contracted services also includes things other than SPED costs—equipment purchases, supplies, instructional materials, textbooks and the like.
The projected increase in SPED staffing is case-driven according to Richards. “We have an increase in the numbers of students with serious hearing impairment, which mean increased need for speech and language professionals, some special ed teaching positions and additional school psychology time. These again are case-load driven.”
In the past the schools have contracted with outside service providers. “It’s typically costly, so we’ve tried to add some FTEs to eliminate the need to use outside, more costly service.”
Two interesting things regarding Special Education costs to point out, which were brought up by parents:
- the SPED budget includes money for athletes injured with concussions and as a result need homeschool programs or other children too ill to be in the schools.
- the SPED budget does not reflect reimbursement from the State: We are reimbursed for students who exceed 4.5 times the per-pupil costs. We pay for the first $70,000; the state reimburses the school district for costs above that. Year to year, the level of reimbursement varies 75-90 percent. The reimbursement money helps cover budget overages and the remainder goes to the town.
Of note, the budget includes $50,000 for the district to address as needed any issues related to Indoor Air Quality at Miller-Driscoll. “It’s a placeholder; we will see what the review of that building shows us. We’ll be receiving recommendations and this will help fund additional testing if that’s needed, or monitoring or perhaps ongoing repairs to some equipment.”
In addition, Richards budgeted $170,000 for security enhancement at three out of the town’s four schools. “We have not at Miller-Driscoll because the security enhancement will be built in to the building project budget.” It’s worth noting that no M-D renovation project has yet passed town-wide approval, and unless it is approved it won’t begin until January 2016, with a target end date of Oct. 2017 or Aug. 2018, depending on the project that does get passed.
Important to note, as of now, there is no plan for the district to charge participation fees, as it did last year.
Richards’ Overall Plea
By the end of his presentation, Richards highlighted the success stories and results he said were attributable to the district that has been kept strong through the years, citing performance on standardized test scores, national merit scholars, AP scores, as well as programs that “represent positive return on investment for the community–extracurricular activities, a vibrant arts program, a successful athletics program. We have also done more outreach with our senior community. these are their schools as well.”
“We have earned, over the years, a reputation as a highly successful school system, one of the most successful in the state, in our area. It’s important to remember that, it’s a real asset to the community and we want to do all we can to keep it that way.”
Aside from one straightforward questioner who asked about enrollment projections, most other audience members thanked and complemented school officials on their work and seemed supportive of the budget increase. In fact, one speaker, Stacy Crameri, seemed to push administrators to think beyond what they’d already considered, and suggested they needed to do more to make the district more innovative–as well as do more to look for alternative funding.
“The budget is, like last year, a little bit status quo—we have a budget that will cover costs that are projected and needed. My concern as a parent is that I look at that budget, and the past few years, it’s not supporting an innovative school system. We live in a town where the median income is roughly $190,000. I recently went back to my hometown where the median income is $40,000. Their kindergarten students all had iPads. My old junior high is an I-STEM school. I realize the constraints that we have and what you’re faced with, looking at a 4.8 [percent increase] and the BOF is looking at 1.75, I’m concerned in how we move forward, that the only resources we have are increase our property tax or implement pay for play. I urge all public officials to look at other ways to create other resources in our town.”
Here are additional comments made by other audience members:
Shannon White, “I’m the new minister at Wilton Presbyterian Church. I picked up my ninth grader today, we just moved over from the school district in Bedford, NY. She said, ‘I’ve been talking to my friends, and they said that the regular classes in our district are probably the AP classes in Bedford.’ She was noticing the difference in the quality of the education that she’s getting here. Thank you so much for all of your work on this. I realize also as a person in the public sector, it is really important to look to caring those who don’t have all the resources they need, and so providing for special ed is a greater burden but it is essential and important. While it costs everyone, it benefits everyone, we all benefit.”
Kimber Felton: “I’m a parent of three kids in the school system. “Thank you for a strong presentation, preserving the class size. I look at the budget and I see lots of costs that can’t be trimmed. I hope you don’t cut staffing which would increase the class size and impact our kids’ education. I’m also a parent of a child with special needs, and to me the SPED budget requires that the board and the town look long term—it covers a wide of children with a range of challenges., to children with social and emotional issues, They work hard at giving the wide variety of students the tools to learn and become more independent and productive members of society. I support the budget as is, at this point the only people you can cut are teachers and I ask you not to do that because class size is important to our kids.”
Maggie Feltz: showed picture of her son, turning 4-years-old. “We’re celebrating our 1-year anniversary at Wilton Preschool services. Autism looks different with every kid that you look at. The thing I most appreciate in my experiences at Wilton Preschool Services is that every single staff member, all the therapists approach Kiran as an individual, and work to understand his needs and capitalize on his strengths, which are so different from the other kids that are there. They work extremely hard. I’m very grateful. I support the budget, I know it’s a big increase, but I’ve been a homeowner in Wilton without a child, I’ve lived here seven years, and I’m going to continue to support the Wilton budget. I believe in taking care of our kids and, I think it’s what sets this town apart.”
Rebecca LePage: “When you look at the Special Ed budget, a lot of people say, ‘That’s a big increase, why do they need all that?’ I can tell you there are parents whose children are aging into the district, or parents with children already in the district with changing needs, who aren’t able to get the services they’re being told their child needs. I would like to speak out and support the budget for parents who aren’t here, or who are and are afraid to speak out, because that’s a really vulnerable position. When you look at the numbers, it seems like a big increase. But when you look at the children, all we’re asking for is what they need. Thank you for giving those children what they deserve.”
Maria Wilcox: “How do we convince everyone in the town that all these increases are needed? I was shocked–you’re actually adding teachers at the high school? I don’t think we’ve been here when we’ve actually added teachers. That’s a good statistic to tell people. The town should know that. Also, some of the Special Education costs come back to the school from the state, I understand why it’s not in these numbers, but it’s a number the town people should know. The special education costs isn’t really costing taxpayers as much as it seems in the budget. That might make a good statistic to tell . It’s a terrific budget, it has my support and class size is the most important thing.”
Beth Johnson: “The salary increases are not controllable, the benefit increases are not controllable, the special ed mandates are not controllable. The town’s security task force is recommending great ideas, that is not in our control and I fully support these ideas, but if the Board of Finance is going to say 1.75 percent and at least half of this 4.8 percent is not controllable, I don’t know how we get there without drastic cuts that are going to hurt the general education and all the students, and the reputation of the town. I’m very concerned about the BoF’s 1.75 percent, because I don’t see that as achieveable without big decreases in the quality of our education. I hope they’re listening to all these people who say the budget is good as it stands. I support it. I don’t want to see it cut.”