Wilton Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith attended the Tuesday, Dec. 13 Board of Finance (BOF) meeting to share his latest outlook on the school district’s FY2024 budget.
This is the second appearance Smith has made at a BOF meeting in recent months. On Oct. 11, he informed the BOF of a significant budget overrun the district is experiencing in the current budget year.
At that meeting, Smith highlighted cuts in state grants and higher-than-anticipated student outplacement costs, among other issues impacting the current budget, and gave the BOF an early glimpse at potential budget challenges for the upcoming FY2024 budget.
Since then, the BOF has explored potential mill rate scenarios based on hypothetical Board of Education (BOE) budget numbers, using assumptions on issues like labor costs (which were still in union negotiations at the time) and projected student enrollment figures.
With those issues starting to come into clearer focus and with the FY2024 budget process about to begin, the BOF invited Smith, along with newly installed Board of Education Chair Ruth DeLuca, to share the latest information.
The ongoing dialogue with Smith and the BOE has been a deliberate effort by the BOF to obtain insight into the BOE’s budget proposal early in the process (and earlier than in previous years), and to avoid the appearance of last-minute maneuvers and conflict before key budget deadlines.
Smith began the discussion with the single largest driver of the budget: teacher salary costs.
In mediated negotiations, the district and the teacher’s union recently reached a three-year contractual agreement, which takes effect July 1, 2023.
Over the three years, teacher salaries will increase 11.6% — roughly $4.77 million — with a $1.5 million increase expected for the 2023-2024 school year.
For their part, teachers will pay higher deductibles on their health insurance and will also pick up a higher share of their premiums, which (combined) are estimated to save the Town roughly $650,000 over the next three years.
Smith said he considers the outcome of the mediation “a success” because the annual increase is below the state average, and because the Town was able to settle on a negotiated increase without having to submit to binding arbitration, which he said tends to favor the use of the state average.
“We considered that very good news,” Smith told the board members.
BOF Vice Chair Stewart Koenigsberg, who participated in the mediation, agreed, calling it “a very fair deal for both sides” especially “considering where inflation has been.”
“I think it’s a very difficult set of contractual negotiations,” Koenigsberg continued. “Most people in town probably don’t have an awareness of how this really works.”
Smith went into less detail when it came to salary or wage increases for non-union employees, although he expected a lower percentage rate increase than the teachers.
Smith cited an estimated total enrollment of 3,742 students next year, about 50 fewer than the current school year.
“That reduction will primarily occur at Middlebrook,” Smith said. “We have a large 12th-grade class leaving, a smaller kindergarten class coming in, and a large eighth-grade class that’s moving up to the high school… Cider Mill will actually increase.”
To manage the higher enrollment at Cider Mill, Smith said he is considering the addition of two classroom teachers, at a cost of roughly $100,000 each.
He also said Middlebrook was considering integrating its reading and writing classes, which would require fewer teachers (and therefore budget savings) than the current model in which those classes are taught separately.
The number of outplacements has also been shifting.
The cost of outplaced students was one component of the BOE budget the district underestimated in the current budget, which included $2.9 million for outplacements. (Smith told the BOF in October that the district had exceeded that budget by $1 million and implemented a freeze on other, discretionary spending.)
“We’re forecasting somewhere between 24 and maybe as high as 27 outplacements,” Smith added. “That number’s still a moving target.”
Smith painted a bleak picture of the current cost of utilities, including gas (up 20%), electricity (up 52%) and diesel (up roughly 150%).
While Smith hopes those prices come down, he’s reluctant to plan on that.
On the plus side, Smith reported the district had applied for a new state grant for mental health which, if received, would cover the cost of three, full-time-equivalent (FTE) employees.
Smith also said a preschool tuition increase and a return to facility rentals will help provide some cost offsets.
Although the anticipated budget increases identified to date were much greater than the savings Smith discussed during the meeting, Smith seemed to assure the BOF he would not be asking for a blank check.
“You should not expect that I’m going to roll forward with a 6% [budget] increase,” Smith told the BOF. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Smith anticipates the following schedule for developing the budget proposal:
- Jan. 12: Superintendent presents his proposed budget to BOE
- Jan. 24-26: BOE budget workshops
- Feb. 2: BOE budget deliberations
- Feb. 9: Tentative joint BOE/BOF meeting
To follow or participate in the BOE budget process, including the Thursday, Dec. 15 Community Conversation on the 2023-24 Budget, look for meeting agendas and Zoom links on the BOE webpage under BoardDocs. Live meetings and recordings can be seen on the BOE’s YouTube channel.
For BOF meetings, Zoom links may be found on the meeting agenda posted for each meeting on the Town website.
2023 Regular Meeting Dates
The BOF has agreed to a schedule for its 2023 regular meetings:
- January 10
- February 21
- March 21
- April 11
- May 9
- June 13
- July 11
- August 8
- September 12
- October 10
- November 14
- December 12