Wilton Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Smith introduced his FY’24 budget proposal presentation to the Board of Education last night with an inauspicious announcement: it was the largest year-over-year budget increase he had ever proposed in his decade-long career.
Smith’s overall budget request for the 2023-24 school year is $91,869,768, which represents a 5.99% increase over the district’s FY’23 budget — in total, an escalation of $5,191,906.
After delivering the numbers, Smith repeated his own statistic, noting the proposed request in front of the BOE was the highest increase he’d ever proposed, “by double.”
“That’s why I said initial — we’ve got work to do in the next month as we look at this thing,” Smith added.
Smith said his budget meets the district’s priorities and goals, and funds “a really strong system” that lets Wilton “continue to do well what we’ve been doing well.”
But, he added, it won’t break any new ground — even at $92 million.
“The budget essentially is funding what we have today and will provide ongoing support for us to continue our incremental improvement. What you’re not going to see in this budget are any carve-outs of new programs, new initiatives, or targeted spending in any particular new area. The constraints on the budget don’t permit that,” he said. “They haven’t for some time.”
Smith gave concrete examples of where he did channel that budgetary investment: instructional coaches and Library Media Center staff, who he called the “heart of our innovation work.”
Where observers won’t see investment? Facilities. His proposed budget does include routine maintenance and adding security cameras, but it doesn’t include major facilities improvement needs. However, he said Town officials are building a 10-year master plan to fund necessary improvements at Cider Mill School, Wilton High School and Middlebrook School.
Anyone following national economic news shouldn’t be surprised that Smith referred to “external pressures” as having a serious impact on Wilton’s FY’24 budget process. Town officials had already begun informal budget discussions earlier than usual this year in anticipation of the “extraordinary challenges” they expect to face.
“This year, we are confronting a set of variables that combine to create significant upward pressure on our annual operating budget.” Among them he listed:
- three new contracts were signed with salary increases that reflect “extraordinary inflationary pressures”
- higher health care costs associated with higher use of health benefits
- COVID-era ARP and ESSR grants applied to this year’s contract expire in June 2023
- significant increases in the costs of special education outplacement
- the number of students with special needs in the district is expected to increase
- substitute shortages have required a need to increase pay to attract and retain substitutes
- an increase in the number of students experiencing acute mental health crises
- the district continues to deal with COVID learning recovery in the classroom
Before getting into details and numbers, Smith made a more personable, emotional appeal, saying that the Wilton School District has seen the payoff from how the district has budgeted in the past.
“School budgets ought to pay for performance and opportunity,” Smith said, calling the current year an “amazing” one for performance. First and foremost was the state ranking Wilton as the top performing school district in the state on its Next Generation Accountability report card.
Smith credited that “return on the investment” to budgetary investment.
“That’s a direct reflection of teachers, administration and programming decisions to support intervention, to implement the acceleration framework, to grow the work of reading… We have indicators across the system through almost all standardized measures,” he said, noting that even “superfluous” recognition ranking Wilton as a “top performing district” by US News & World Report and Niche.com demonstrated that funding payoff.
As for opportunity, Smith paid accolades about the things the budget provided Wilton students — in the rigorous curriculum including college level and AP courses, and access to so much.
“What does a budget pay for? It is these kinds of opportunities for kids to really tap into their creativity and develop tremendous skills in these areas of interest before them. On the athletic fields, on the stage, in the music ensembles, the accolades that our students rack up are impressive. In the context of a budget, in terms of performance, in terms of opportunity, we are a very, very strong district,” he said.
Budget Assumptions and Drivers
Smith gave what he said was a “high-level summary” of the budget proposal and said the board would explore specifics during a series of upcoming workshops, both with school administrators and department heads and later with the Board of Finance.
One major factor impacting budgetary needs is student enrollment. Acknowledging a trend of enrollment decline, Smith said next year Wilton expects to have 3,742 students enrolled, a drop of 47 students. Enrollment shifts from year to year will mean shifts in classroom teachers. He specifically cited the addition of two teachers at Cider Mill.
For personnel across the district, the budget proposal includes a net increase of 1.2 FTE (full-time equivalents). Smith explained that, despite enrollment decline, the district is seeing “more students with more needs,” including more students at the Community Steps transition program for 18-21-year-olds and a projected increase in students with IEPs.
Smith said there will be little enrollment-related change in FTEs at Miller-Driscoll Elementary and WHS, while there’s an increase at Cider Mill and “a fairly substantial decrease at Middlebrook.”
Smith said the budget makes a “commitment” to protect current class size averages in all the schools.
At Middlebrook, the budget also accounts for a projected change to a block schedule, with an accompanying reduction of 7.0 FTE or an estimated $750,000. He noted that the actual impact from the schedule change more likely will be 9-10 teachers. But observers will see changes impacting curriculum improvement, including the introduction of a new STEM class with robotics and coding, what Smith called “one of the glaring gaps in our curriculum.” [Editor’s note: GMW will cover the Middlebrook schedule change separately.]
The budget accounts for other enrollment-related factors:
- absorbing staff that had been funded through COVID-related ARP and ESSR grants, including classroom teachers, math interventionists and mental health personnel
- a sixth pre-K class that Smith said will be offset through revenue that the preschool brings in, including new teaching and paraprofessional staff
- no change to the number of administrators
- the net reduction in 2.0 certified teacher FTEs
- no change in the number of teacher coaches
How $91,869,768 Overall Budget Request Breaks Down
Smith explained how the budget increase breaks down by categories (numbers in bold show the year-over-year change).
- Salaries — $2.33 million; benefits — $1,670,471: these two categories account for nearly 80% of the overall budget; the year-over-year increase in both categories together represents three-quarters of the total 5.99% increase. Smith called the salary increase “the single largest driver of the budget.” This also includes a $165,000 increase in substitute salaries, as this was the first year the district heard subs were working in other districts that paid more. [Editor’s note: the original article only identified the salary increase amount; it has been updated to include the benefits increase figure as well. Together, they account for 75% of the total year-over-year increase ($5.2 million).]
- Equipment — $295,191: all new technology purchases, including student Chromebooks, teacher laptop replacements and “small steps to replace aging Smartboards with flat-panel interactive TVs”; that’s offset by a reduction of $265,000 in leased technology
- Purchased services — $502,167: out-of-district tuition has increased by $435,000 and athletic transportation increases reflect a need to contract with third-party vendors due to a bus driver shortage. Smith said he’s working with the school bus company STA on a solution: “I don’t see this as sustainable, we have to do something different.”
- Property services — $225,927: Smith said the theme in this category is “everything is up.” This includes adding additional security cameras at all the schools, after a needs assessment found a need to expand the security footprint
- Supplies — -$4,405 (decrease): the slight reduction reflects substantial savings in digital resources thanks to better pricing, but an increase in diesel fuel costs offset those savings.
- Utilities — $396,293: electricity use is trending 40% higher from a year ago, fuel cost has risen “dramatically” and “everything is more expensive,” Smith said. One bit of good news is the partnership with the Town to install solar panels on the roofs of Miller-Driscoll and Middlebrook. “Since those have come online, those have represented pretty substantial savings, I think over $200,000 combined,… So even with the incredible increase in the cost of electricity, it would be so much worse if we didn’t have the solar panels.”
Smith said there was some good news in the budget, including some budget lines with reductions.
- $327,000 revenue generated by the pre-K program this year
- defined benefits line is down because the fund is fully funded, so the district’s annual contribution decreased by $362,741
- ¸the end of technology leases brought savings of $263,000
- staff worked to squeeze discretionary lines as much as possible
- Historical efficiences continue to save the district money, including savings in Special services with some outplaced students brought in-district and cost-avoidance with the Genesis program; renegotiated leases and service contracts; reducing the amount of technology hardware as technology has evolved; and solar panels
He also pointed out that the budget didn’t start at 5.99%.
“What you have in front of you reflect proposals that we removed before we got to this initial 5.99% increase. So you have a richer picture of where the budget conversation began internally and some of the decisions I made and this team made as we refined this budget proposal,” Smith said.
How Does Wilton’s Proposed Budget Compare
Smith tried to put into context how his proposed budget compared to Wilton School budgets in past years as well as against surrounding towns.
He provided an illustration of a 1.27% budget increase average over eight years, and called the FY2024 proposal “an outlier.”
“We’ve worked hard in this district to present budgets that meet the needs, address our goals and cost as little as we can make them cost while doing those things we need to do.”
Smith’s next point was that although his proposed 5.99% increase was the largest budget request of the towns in its District Reference Group (DRG), Wilton’s 8-year 1.27% average yearly budget increase (and 1.97% 9-year average) was the lowest of the DRG.
He also showed where Wilton fares in per-pupil spending compared to the other DRG town, using the two data sources available to the district.
Upcoming Budget Review Dates
Specific times and additional information are available on the Board of Education website.
Tuesday, Jan. 24: BOE Budget Workshop — Miller-Driscoll, Cider Mill, Middlebrook
Wednesday, Jan. 24: BOE Budget Workshop — WHS and Athletics, Special Education
Thursday, Jan. 26: BOE Budget Workshop — Digital Learning, Technology, District
Thursday, Feb. 2: BOE begins Budget Deliberations
Thursday, Feb. 9: Joint Meeting with Board of Finance
Wednesday, Feb. 15: Deadline for BOF to set dates for Public Hearings on BOE and BOS budgets
Thursday, Feb. 16: BOE meeting to approve budget
Tuesday, Feb. 21: BOF Regular Meeting
Friday, March 3: Deadline for BOE and BOS to submit budgets to BOF (in advance of May 2 Annual Town Meeting)
Monday, March 27: BOF Public Hearing for the BOE proposed school budget
Tuesday, March 28: BOF Public Hearing for the BOS proposed town budget
Tuesday, April 11: Deadline for BOF to recommend a budget to bring to the Annual Town Meeting (in advance of May 2 Annual Town Meeting)
Tuesday, May 2: Annual Town Meeting
Saturday, May 6: Adjourned Town Vote
Correction: The article has been updated with the correct date for the Thursday, Feb. 16 BOE meeting to approve the superintendent’s school budget proposal; and to confirm dates for the BOF public hearings on March 27 and 28, and the Annual Town Meeting on Tuesday, May 2.