Superintendent Proposes 1.98% School Budget Increase for FY’19–”May be too low to meet needs”

At last night’s meeting of the Board of Education, school superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith presented his proposed budget for FY’19. The total figure proposed by Smith for operating expenses for the FY’19 school budget is $82,168,952. The numbers he showed to BOE members represent a 1.98% increase over last year ($80,569,905), which was a zero-percent increase from the prior year.

The guidance giving to the BOE by the Board of Finance was a 1.0% increase.

Smith sat down for an interview with GOOD Morning Wilton about an hour before presenting to the board to talk about what was in the budget, what wasn’t, and how he is characterizing this year–he noted that the reductions his team of administrators have had to make to keep the budget low are worrisome, saying, “I think that proposal might be inadequate and too low to fund all our needs.”

Among those reductions are a staff reduction of 2.95 FTE (full-time equivalent staff), textbook purchases, Library Learning Commons expenditures, $60,000 from the athletics budget, and more.

Right now, the budget is considered the superintendent’s proposed budget. Now, the BOE will begin its review and when they come to a consensus and eventually vote approve it at the Feb. 22 BOE meeting, it’s at that point considered the BOE proposed budget. The BOE will then take that budget to the BOF and the town.

“I encourage all members of the town to become engaged in the process. Things are not rosy in Hartford nor in Wilton. Nevertheless, we have high expectations for our schools in Wilton,” BOE chair Christine Finkelstein said at last night’s meeting. She also joined GMW and Smith for the interview.

The slides from Smith’s presentation are included at the end of the interview, below. There’s also a calendar of all the upcoming budget process dates at the end of the article.

GOOD Morning Wilton:  I feel like when we made plans to talk about the budget, I sensed you grimaced over the phone when I asked how things were going. 

Kevin Smith:  [Laughs] Yes.

GMW:   You said about it, “Tough year.” It seems like, with state budget problems going on with Hartford, with Wilton’s financials, all of those issues across the board, that everyone is saying, “Tough year.” What’s making this one a tough year?

KS:  The fiscal climate, in general, as you just named. We just spent an hour plus with [Wilton’s State Rep.] Gail Lavielle, and the word that I walked out of that conversation with was “uncertainty,” and it’s very clear. After a very tumultuous budget season at the state level, where cuts were made, we’re still facing a substantial deficit in this funding year. We should anticipate further cuts, so that creates conditions to make it tough. Locally, as we’ve been monitoring, the grand list growth hasn’t been very dynamic, and costs continue to increase, and so we’re trying to partner with the town, with the Board of Finance to manage costs as effectively as possible.

On the other side of that equation, we are contending with the desire to continue to provide a world class education as I think we do, as an education system that all members of the community can and should be proud of. but within that, we’re trying to restrain growth of the budget, which is really driven by contracted cost increase as well, trying to fund our priorities and continue to grow some of those areas that we believe in and believe are good for kids. What you’re left with when you’re trying to manage against the bottom line is very few discretionary dollars given the set of choices that we’ve made, that we believe constitute a good, improving, educational system.

GMW:  What you just said sounds like the same thing I hear year after year after year. I mean, contracted increases and provide a world class education. 

KS:  I would say the other dynamic for us in this community is contending with an enrollment decline. Year over year, it doesn’t look dramatic, but when you widen the lens to four or five years, you do see a reduction of a few hundred kids. When you project out, you see a reduction of another few hundred kids. We try to make choices in recent years to met our priorities through reallocating staffing positions as we have reduced classes, or some of the choices that we’ve made. In this particular budget year, we don’t have a substantial enough reduction to close classrooms. In fact, we’re anticipating the possibility of having to open another class at Cider Mill. In one hand, that’s good news because we want as many kids in our system as want to be here and can afford to be here, but on the other hand, it just creates another pressure when you’re trying to manage toward the Board of Finance guidance to a 1% increase.

GMW:  Didn’t Cider Mill reduce one classroom this year?

KS:  That’s right.

GMW:  So you were down and you’re going back up one class again. Didn’t the Miller-Driscoll population, grow more than expected, and that population is now moving up to Cider Mill? So it doesn’t sound surprising that you would have to add back to Cider Mill. Enrollment projection-wise, even though there was a decline, it wasn’t as large as it had been expected–there were actually more kids that came in than you expected were going to. It was overall lower, but not as significantly lower as everyone thought it would be, correct?

KS:  That’s right.

GMW:  Might that possibly happen again? With younger families that are moving into Wilton?

KS:  I think it just reveals the fact that those projections aren’t a guaranteed science. We get as much good information as possible. We attempt to triangulate it, but it’s imperfect. There are variables that we just simply can’t control for.

GMW:  You mentioned Gail Lavielle and “uncertainty” at the state level. Town-wise, we were able to avoid the doom and gloom of last year that was predicted with the possible $4 million bill for the teachers’ pension that Gov. Malloy was going to shift over to us. Where do we stand on that for the coming year? Are we running the risk again?

KS:   Number one, it’s important for everyone in Wilton to know how well served we are by our State Representatives, by Toni Boucher, by Gail Lavielle, by Tom O’Dea. They have a lot of clout, a lot of influence, and work very effectively on behalf of Wilton. Gail said there was a lot she didn’t know because that question was asked,  to what extent should we anticipate another proposal that would shift some of those pension obligations? She said, “There’s no appetite necessarily to do that.” That doesn’t mean there’s not conversation about it still taking place. Maybe considering a proposal not quite as dramatic as what the govenor proposed, but some other version. I think the trend that we’re seeing is a trend that we should continue to expect, which is the state shifting the burden of some of this cost to local municipalities.

GMW:  Not only shifting the cost to local municipalities, but how have you factored in the budget state aid that you previously had gotten? Does the budget reflect no state aid? Does the budget reflect reimbursements for special ed costs?

KS:  We don’t account for ECS [Educational Cost Sharing grant] funding. That’s factored in at the town level. The money that we watch very carefully is the SPED Excess Cost. We did plan for a slight reduction. The worry that we would have is that reduction in those funds is greater than what we anticipated because we use those funds every single year.

That reimbursement, the state has never fully funded its obligation. We get maybe 75% of the 100 that the state is supposed to provide. Which amounts in real dollars to somewhere around or slightly more than $1 million. So we’re anticipating someplace less than $1 million. We just simply don’t know yet, as the state legislature and the governor are talking about what additional cuts are going to be made. Whether or not those funds will be targeted–obviously I hope the answer is, ‘No.’

GMW:  On the town side, the town was able to recoup some income it didn’t expect to get, which will help them as they set their FY ’19 budget. Has there been any similar situation on the school side?

KS:  No. We really continue to carefully monitor our spending. We’re going to freeze our [current] budget shortly because we’re continuing to track some cost overruns and outplacement tuition in special education. We’ve had to do that before, so people expect that. But no found dollars, unfortunately.

GMW:  That seems to happen yearly–midyear you have to freeze the budget, then by the end of the year, there weren’t as many health claims, and so by the end of the year it balances out.

KS:  I think it’s a prudent approach, to monitor the spending and freeze spending at this point. There are certain costs that are just hard to plan for. We don’t like to budget for worst case scenarios because that can be a budget buster. But we can have a family move into town with a child with extraordinary needs that we didn’t budget for. Those things do happen periodically. You just try to manage the best that you can. Typically at the end of the year we found that we have, but that still represents a vulnerability in our budget.

GMW:  That’s not unique to Wilton, is it?

KS:  Certainly not. This is part of the problem, with the way that special education is funded in the state.

GMW:  Let’s look at this year’s overall proposed budget. What are we looking at?

KS:  The administration is requesting an appropriation of $82,168,952, which represents a 1.98% increase over current year spending. When I present to the BOE today, I’m going to share that, with lots of consultations with the administrators, I think that proposal might be inadequate and too low to fund all our needs.

We’ve spent many months putting this together. We’re in a 0.0% increase mow, so what that means is we’ve made efforts to continue to provide funds toward our priorities:  to maintain and fund the quality of our school district; we’ve also absorbed the contracted cost increases this year. As we look to the next funding year, the contracted salary increases represent 82.3% of that increase. The other portions of that increase are represented by:  targeting funding for technology; increasing some digital resources; and providing a small amount of additional funds for training and support for our educational and professional staff.

GMW:  What isn’t in there that you would like to see?

KS:  Right now, in working with the administrators, the first pass at the budget–the administrators go back and review their annual cost expenditures, and they look at the priorities, and then they put together a proposal–we aggregated all those proposals when they came to me, nearly a month and a half ago–and they represented nearly 7.5% increase over this year’s spending. We used the last 5-6 weeks to pare that down to a proposal that is manageable, but it really actually has me worried.

The kinds of things we’re looking at are some staff reductions. There’s a proposal that has me most worried that talks about staff reductions in the area of mental health–social work, OT in some of our schools. That proposal came about through conversations with [assistant superintendent for special services] Andrea Leonardi, she’s looking within the SPED budget, where do we need to absolutely fund and if we have to cut, where would we cut. I don’t know that we ought to be doing that. We’re going to need to look at restoring those.

There are also proposals for additional staff. There were proposals for additional PE staff. There were proposals for additional science staff. At Miller-Driscoll for example, we’ve created this great STEM lab. Kevin Meehan has been working both at Miller-Driscoll and Cider Mill, but we want to increase our students’ access to science. We also want to create some opportunities for teachers to collaborate more, but to find that time, we need additional staff. Those proposals were eliminated from the budget. We reduced the athletics budget by nearly $60,000 [from $270,000].

GMW:  $60,000–what’s the total budget? Put that in perspective and what gets cut?

KS:  $247,000.  Within that, just to be illustrative, we’ve reduced the number of games that some of the teams will play. We’ve reduced the amount of ice time that one of the hockey teams will have access to. Embedded within that proposal was a request for some FTE for an assistant athletic director, just to aid with supervision at some of the games and some of the logistics–that was taken out.

There’s a fairly lengthy list, that comprises those reductions, but those are few. We’ve deferred some capital maintenance. I had asked [facilities director] Chris Burney and [custodian] Jose Figueroa to develop a multi-year plan to really manage and improve some of our facilities. Things like painting, replacement of doors and locks, replacement of ceiling tiles, that were in year one of this multi-year plan have been pushed out two years. Two, three, four, and beyond. It’s just trying to not let go of it, but to try and stretch it out.

GMW:  Sounds like with those cuts you’re doing as much as you can to protect classrooms, to protect teaching and learning.

KS:  Our priorities are really laid out in our strategic objectives, but protecting–particularly at the lower schools–the class sizes. We’re in a good place for the most part with where they are, so wanting to protect staffing there. As you get into the upper schools, the quality of programming is excellent. We are very fortunate. We offer all kinds of opportunities in the arts, and music, and other electives, and so I think it’s important in providing a very, very high quality of education that we protect those opportunities for kids so we’re not looking at some of those things. In working with some of the administrators, make modest adjustments that we thought were appropriate, but not wholesale cuts. Also in recent years, we added enrichment in Cider Mill. We were able to move World Language back into third grade. I think those programming changes are really important for kids. I’m going to want to protect those too.

To answer your question simply, yes. We’re committed to our approach to supporting teachers’ professional learning. We’ve done that through our instructional coaches. There were lots of questions around the value of coaches. As a district, we’re committed to that approach of providing real-time, job-embedded support to teachers, so we’ve protected those positions as well.

GMW:  Since you brought it up, what are you hearing in terms of teachers being happier with coaching? How is the coaching working?

KS:  It’s met differently by different staff members in different schools. There was very positive feedback provided by some staff over at Miller-Driscoll. I asked teachers specifically about how coaching has impacted their practice. One of the teachers remarked that she thought it was a tremendously, positive opportunity to, if you have a problem, an instructional practice that you wanted to work on, to have a coach be able to provide some resources and support in real time. To provide some modeling, and provide some observation in a non-threatening way. For a number of them, it was about as good professional learning as you could get. A marked contrast to the more traditional way of doing it, where you send somebody out to a conference for a day and they sit and take notes, and then are left to their own devices to come back and apply whatever the learning is supposed to be.

Because of some of the choices that we’ve made and how coaching has been implemented at some of the upper schools, you get a different kind of feedback. I also worry that when we’re talking about budgets and the potential for some staffing reductions, some folks really do reduce it to a zero sum game, and just make the choice, “Well if you’ve got to pick something, I find x more valuable than coaching, so cut coaching instead of cut x.”

That’s an unfortunate way to view it because our strategy around improvement really is intended to serve our teachers where that potential has yet to be realized. We need to go back and look at what we’re doing, what the barriers are, and modify accordingly. We don’t give up the strategy. I think that’s a mistake.

GMW:  We talked about what’s not in the budget. What is in? What does this budget include that people are going to be happy about? What’s in there that you like?

KS:  As was announced earlier this year, the high school came forward with a compliment of new courses. As they’ve had some funding requirements, we’ll be running seven new courses at the high school.

We’re covering all of our contracted obligations, so people should be happy about that. That’s not sexy in the least, but as I mentioned before, 82% of the increase is contracted salary. Then, we are continuing our investments in digital learning. We’ve expanded the line to provide some of the infrastructure support. We added a new lease to ensure that devices remain current. We’re increasing modestly the funding for digital resources. These are various apps and programs.

In this budget, we’ve also been able to expand our Pre-K program. The Pre-K program is outstanding. Our desire from the get-go is to provide a really profoundly-beneficial education to our youngest students in a typical setting with typical peers. I think the word on the street about the quality of that program is out. We have a waiting list, so that is something celebratory.

Then, the Community Steps program, which we had funded this [current] year through an offset in outplacement tuition, is now fully baked into the budget. We’re hoping to actually grow that program, and bring more kids back to the district.

Christine Finkelstein:  But essentially, a 1.98% increase gets us a status quo budget.

KS:  There’s not a lot. I think that’s fair to say. Again, I like to be careful. It’s an $80 million budget. Wilton generously funds its public education system, so I wouldn’t want people to think that I would think otherwise. We provide a very, very high quality of education. I couldn’t be prouder of the support we provide to teachers through professional learning. What we’re asking our teachers to do in terms of how they teach reading and how they teach mathematics is very sophisticated. It’s the right thing to do to provide that professional learning; as a result, kids and families really benefit.

GMW:  What are the new courses at the high school?

KS:  You have Civics in the Contemporary World, Honors World Literature, Aerospace Engineering, Advanced Public Speaking, the UCONN ECE English, the UCONN ECE Individual and Family Development, and the UCONN ECE Advanced Spanish Conversation and Composition. I think that’s another side note that I’m not sure how well aware folks in the community are, the college credit earning opportunities our kids have. We offer somewhere around 23 or so AP courses where if our kids take and pass the test earn a three, they are eligible for college credit. All of those ECE courses, those are UCONN courses, so they’re college level. They’re credit bearing, so when you think about return on investment, a wonderful opportunity for kids to leave our high school with a leg-up in terms of the number of credits that they need to access once they land in college.

GMW:  You talked a little bit about the worry you have of losing on mental health services. What are you talking about with staff reduction? What might we see?

KS:  Well, it’s a proposal. None of these are good choices when you’re trying to manage to a desire to keep the budget increase at 1%. As we do annually, we go through all of our staffing and we look at those opportunities around attrition. Then, we look at prioritizing. Andrea Leonardi’s [SPED budget] presentation–I asked her to squeeze her budget too much. She had to make some choices that, once I heard what they were and we had some discussion among the leadership team, we need to reexamine that. The potential is that right now, the way it was presented, would be a possible reduction in social work services. The possible reduction in OT and I’ll support those until part of the conversation with the board as we engage in deliberations over the next series of weeks. How can we restore those and try to find off-sets in other places? We’ll continue to look at our retirements. We’re also looking at reductions in some of our classified staffing.

We’ll see some reductions through attrition in our custodial staff. We engaged a new company, Hilliard, that provides custodial cleaning service materials. One of the services they provide to districts is various in-house needs, staffing ratios relative to square footage and things like that. Based on those recommendations, we were able to reduce the number of custodians we have. We’re also making a change with one of our nighttime positions. Then, we’re looking at just some other positions that emerged through attrition.

GMW:  Can you explain the contracted salary increase, because the teacher salary increases are the largest driver of that. What does that 3% increase really mean? 

KS:  These are the guaranteed salary increases that were negotiated through a collective bargaining process. We go through with each of our bargaining units, contract negotiations. Those contracts are anywhere from three to four years. Once those contracts are agreed upon, there is some stipulation about what annual increases will look like. Through the contract, we’re obligated to provide the level of salary we said we would.

About half of our staff is at the top of the salary scale, and the way that is structured, there are a series of steps. The other half of our staff is somewhere in those steps. The contracted increases are different whether you’re at the top of the scale or within the steps.

GMW:  Where do you expect to see community concerns?

KS:  I think there will be several concerns from different perspectives. On the one hand, many share a concern about the overall funding increase, and what that means relative to property tax obligations. We’ll have others who’ll look at how we’re proposing to allocate our funds, and may have concerns about whether or not we’re funding appropriately. And then I would expect to have some, because there’s such a diverse body of perspectives, who may criticize the choices that we’ve made.

GMW:  Or potentially that it’s too low? Typically there’s a strong contingent of parents who come out to support the school budget. I wonder if this year you’ll see more of that group take a critical eye when they look it over?

KS:   Sure. We’ve been talking about the relative investment in our school system, compared to some of our surrounding communities. I went back and looked, and provide a couple of comparisons. One comparison I looked at was what were the compounded percentage increases over the last 3-4 years in some of our neighboring communities compared to Wilton. You take, for example, Darien. When you look at the compounded budget percentage increases since 2014, they’re at 14%. Ridgefield is at 11%. We’re sitting at about 5% over that same period of time.

Redding, actually, has been below zero for the last couple of years–that superintendent describes it as a dismantling of a quality education system. In some cases, that community might be the canary in a coal mine for all of us.

We need to look carefully at how we manage our investments, and ask the question seriously about whether we are funding at the appropriate level.

GMW:  So aside from Redding everyone is above us?

KS:  Easton has also had very modest increases, compounded since 2014 they’re at 2%. We’re 6th lowest out of eight for the compounded annual increases. That tracks. The good news is that the Board has effectively slowed the growth of spending, which is a good thing to do. We want to look at our costs and make sure we’re dedicating dollars in the right way.

So, I think it’s important to understand. But what feels different to me this year, as I’m looking at this budget compared to other budgets I’ve put together in the past, I really legitimately worry that the proposal I’m sharing with the Board leaves us vulnerable. That’s not a worry I’ve had in the past.

CF:  It’s not a place we want to be. This is the fourth consecutively lean budget in a row and last year when we came in at 0%, those of us on the Board thought, ‘Can we really do that without affecting services and the quality of education?’ And we did. We’re assured we’re providing a Wilton education with that 0%. That’s not sustainable.

That’s what I hope people in town realize. Sure, we can continue to cut the budget, but there will be implications. You just can’t continue to make magic and continue to cut the budget. We will all feel really good if Wilton continues on a downward rate of increase. But there will be consequences.

Our Board hasn’t looked [in depth] at the budget yet, but I want the people of Wilton to know our number one priority is making sure the schools get the funding that they need.

We get one chance with our kids. Kids go through school once. We just can’t afford to mess up with any of them. Slip up one year and those consequences reverberate for years to come.

So as we begin the discussion, I think it’s going to be very sobering for those of us who have been on the Board for many years. This is my 7th budget as a Board member, and it’s different.

[I have a flyer from] when I was PTA president at Miller-Driscoll, all those years ago that said, “Get out the vote! All we’re asking for is an 11% increase.” And it passed. Now here we are going from a 0% to begging for a 1.98% increase.

KS:  My philosophy and approach is to try to present stable budgets over a period of years, because I don’t want to be in a situation where it’s an underfunded low percentage increase or a no-increase, and then have the next year be astronomical in comparison, like 6, 7, 8%, and have this ping-pong effect. It doesn’t make sense and it’s not appropriate.

Steady predictable funding to the best extent that we can provide that is best for the system, best in terms of ensuring really positive outcomes. But Chris is right, there’s going to be a lot of really important conversation as we move forward as the Board deliberates.

GMW:  Any prediction on how the Board of Finance will react to the budget?

CF:  Well their guidance that we were given was 1.0%.

KS:   I have found the BOF to be very good partners. At the end of the day we all want what’s best for Wilton. Two members of the BOF sit on our Business Operations Subcommittee, and we had a conversation with that group this morning. They certainly understand, and they ask really important questions that helps aid our thinking.

I don’t have a worry about that relationship being contentious or acrimonious at all. We all want what’s best. We may ultimately disagree over what best costs, or what is comprised of that number. But that’s also really good, important conversation to have.

GMW:  And given that two of their members sit on your Business Operations Subcommittee, they have more insight into why it’s important, perhaps, than in the past?

KS:  Absolutely, it’s a very reciprocally beneficial conversation. On one hand, we have a couple gentlemen with really deep, good financial background who can really look at a proposal and come away with some really good questions and ask for some particular metrics. On the other side, they get to see intimately what some of those cost drivers are and hear some of those stories about why the needs are the needs.

But when you’re only looking at dollars and cents, all of that falls away. And we can’t lose sight of the ‘why’ here.

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The complete Budget Calendar has been set and meetings will occur on the following dates:

JANUARY 2018
  • Jan. 22-24, BOE Budget workshops (1-3 p.m., WHS Professional Library)
  • Thursday, Jan. 25, Superintendent’s public hearing on budget (7 p.m., Middlebrook Auditorium)
FEBRUARY 2018
  • Thursday, Feb. 1, Board of Education workshop to review operating and capital budget proposals
  • Monday, Feb. 5, Capital Budget discussion with Board of Selectmen (Town Hall)
  • Tuesday, Feb. 13, BOE and Board of Finance meet to review proposed budget
  • Wednesday, Feb. 21, BOF and BOE meet at BOE to review proposed budget–(if needed)
  • Thursday, Feb. 22, Board of Education to approve Operating Budget
MARCH 2018
  • Friday, March 2, final proposed budget due to Board of Finance
  • Monday, March 26, Board of Finance holds Public Hearing on Board of Education Recommended Budget (Middlebrook School auditorium 7:30 p.m.)
  • Tuesday, March 27, Board of Finance Public Hearing on Board of Selectmen’s Recommended Budget including Board of Education Capital Plan (Middlebrook School auditorium 7:30 p.m.)
  • Thursday, March 29, Cabinet and Leadership Team meet to discuss budget cuts (if needed)
APRIL 2018
  • April 3, 4, and 5, Board of Finance holds Mill Rate Meetings
MAY 2018
  • Tuesday, May 1, Annual Town Meeting