Wilton Public Schools superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith presented his proposed 2016-2017 school year budget to a very small audience of residents last night, Thursday, Jan. 28 in the Cider Mill cafeteria.

At the last minute, GOOD Morning Wilton was not able to attend in person, as we typically strive to do for town meetings such as this. Board of Education proceedings and school budget presentations are regularly streamed live on Channel 78 and are available to view via the district website, so we expected to have a backup plan in place.

Unfortunately there were serious technical glitches during last night’s broadcast. The bulk of the superintendent’s presentation had no audio, so anyone watching from home—including GMW—was unable to hear the presentation. When audio was restored, during the audience question portion of the meeting, questions from members of the public were inaudible.

Unfortunately, the both the visual signal and audio during the regular Board of Education meeting was choppy and disjointed as well, so it was very difficult to follow. It eventually cut out completely, during the discussion about reviewing four sections of board policy. The remainder of the agenda—including discussion and the vote on the proposed revised calendar—was not available to anyone viewing at home.

We’ve done our best to report on what was clear and audible, below, and will try and follow up with the superintendent to get a better report on the complete budget presentation as well as any actions taken by the board last night.

From what we gathered from comments on social media, several people who tried to watch from home experienced the same frustrations. Members of the audience in attendance at Cider Mill reported that Smith’s budget presentation in person was thorough and thoughtful.

Proposed Budget for 2016-2017

The current budget proposal for ’16-’17 requests a spending increase of 1.27-percent over this current year’s spending. The total amount that is currently being asked for is $80,972,640.

This budget, Smith asserts, is “fiscally prudent” and balances the need to be fiscally responsible with “strengthening the district’s capacity to utilize strategies that improve teaching and learning.” The budget, he says, allows the district to maintain “current high levels of programming,” add new courses, and enhance curriculum and instructional support to teachers.

According to a statement from Smith in the bi-weekly school news sent to parents, “Budget priorities include providing mathematics interventionists at Miller-Driscoll, Cider Mill, and WHS; creating a new engineering course at WHS; and continuing the many curriculum, instruction, and climate improvement initiatives currently underway.”

Of the $80.97 million being requested, the budget breaks down as follows:

Salaries 60.4%
Employee Benefits 16.9%
Contracted services, Outplacements, Supplies & Equipment 14.2%
Transportation 4.9%
Buildings, Operations & Facilities 2.6%
Substitutes 1.0%

The budget reflects a reduction in staff, by 6.65 FTE (full-time equivalents), including classroom teachers. It also reflects a projected decline in enrollment by 99 students (2.3-percent). Even with the reductions, the largest portion of the budget—just over 77-percent—is allocated to employee salaries and benefits.

In materials that are available on the school district’s website, Smith explains that professional staff compensation is the largest part of a budget for most public school districts, and suggests that doing so will benefit student performance.

“Wilton Public Schools invests significantly in its teachers. Research correlating effective teaching and student achievement is clear.”

Some of the ways Smith says that the budget will help strengthen teaching in the district is through investment in professional learning, support of staff collaboration and providing laptops to instructional staff.

He says that the budget has been constructed as such because the priorities “include expanding course offerings and strengthening systems to support teachers’ work in the classrooms.” As well, the district is putting concerted effort toward “strengthen[ing] our capacity to support our most struggling learners through the proposed addition of mathematics interventionists…”

Smith also points out that it is a continued priority to “expand enrichment and arts opportunities” and that is “reflected through proposed expenditure increases at Cider Mill and Middlebrook.”

Initiatives in technology and the “Learning Commons” are also areas of focus:  the continued development of these initiatives “is prioritized through significant expenditures in infrastructure upgrades, device acquisitions and increases in personnel support.”

What About More Possible Budget Cuts

During last night’s presentation, Smith was asked a question about the direction he was originally given by the Board of Finance, which suggested a budget increase of 1.1-percent over the 2015-16 budget. Calling Smith’s proposed budget “already very lean,” the audience member noted Smith’s budget comes in above what the BoF asked for.

“If they come back wanting cuts is there a plan as to what those cuts would be?” she asked.

Smith said the budget that he and the other administrators had put together was one that they thought was appropriate for what they need to meet the goals they have set.

“I have no interest in playing a game where we build a budget knowing that there are going to be cuts. I don’t think that’s appropriate, I don’t think that’s the right thing to do. We build a budget we think we need. Some of our board members have raised really good questions:  ‘Are there concerns about underfunding education in the long term?’ I don’t believe so personally. We look at this very carefully. We look at our strategic investments and make sure they’re aligned. If the BoF made some cuts, we’re going to have to let go of some things,” Smith said.

Given that, Smith conceded that there is a list that school officials have put together of things they’d consider eliminating, but ultimately he hopes they don’t have to.

“One of our board members asked what we would cut. We do have a list that we would begin deliberations. We do have some narratives of what we’d start to look at. We would try to stay away from further personnel reductions, but we might look at technology and some other expenditures in order to meet the demands. I would hate to do that, because the commitment we made was to put forward the budget we thought we would need to advance our objectives and to provide a really high quality education for all our kids.”

Before Thursday evening’s presentation, Smith had prepared an earlier draft of a budget that reflected a 1.44-percent increase, but following workshop sessions with the Board of Education, he was able to trim that back to the currently proposed 1.27-percent increase, or $1,016,617 above last year.

In contrast, a 1.1-percent increase would be $879,516. That would mean Smith and his team would have to find and additional $137,101 to cut.

Asking for Resident Feedback

After taking questions from the audience members, Smith turned the tables to ask the audience questions. Saying that the Board of Education is “hungry for feedback,” he said that neither he nor the BoE members feel they are receiving enough feedback from residents about the budget and the school district.

“We think we’re moving in the right direction. But the simple truth is that these are your schools and these are your kids. It’s vital that you share with us your thinking. Are we moving in the right direction? Are we missing something? Is there an area that we should be focusing on that you haven’t heard a lot about?”