Our Part 1 of this story reviewed what each of the Board of Finance members was thinking going into budget deliberations, whether or not to ask for more cuts from the Boards of Education and Selectmen. Now, Part 2 will cover their discussion and debate during the first night of mil rate deliberations on Wednesday, April 6, as well as how tensions rose between BOE chair Bruce Likly and certain BOF members throughout the meeting.
Following each BOF member’s remarks on their thoughts about budget numbers, they began crunching numbers and working on the mil rate model that the town uses. They began looking at some of the factors used in their calculations.
Estimated Revenues: First selectman Lynne Vanderslice notified the BOF that a recent rumored change in Hartford would likely reduce expected revenues. She said that the state appropriations committee would likely reduce the excess cost grants (the funds that are reimbursed to towns related to excess costs in special education) to help cover shortfalls in the state budget. “They are recommending an almost $500,000 reduction that would come to Wilton. If you kept a scoresheet as to why you need to keep a fund balance, I’d put it on that score sheet.” Not knowing what the probability was for that happening, the BOF decided to reduce the estimated revenues by half, or $250,000.
Tax Relief for the Elderly and Disabled: While the town did not use all of the $1.1 million budgeted in FY 2016, because applications for deferrals were down, Vanderslice recommended leaving the item at the same level. “I wouldn’t cut that number, because it might be an opportunity to perhaps change the numbers–by bringing up the earnings level or adjusting the credits.”
Discussing the Board of Selectmen’s Proposed Budget
Vanderslice told the BOF that her board hadn’t voted on the items she proposed to cut but they did authorize her to bring the recommendations to the BoF.
Of the $213,000 that Vanderslice identified in her budget that could be cut, what concerned several members of both boards was that the largest item being cut was a dump truck, which is part of the BOS operating capital budget.
“Cutting capital is not the way to make the budget. I had conversations with Tom [Thurkettle, DPW chief] about the truck. whether we could wait on that. He said, ‘I can do another year without that dump truck.’ Everybody is comfortable with the changes we made,” she said.
Vanderslice indicated that the cuts she was bringing to the BOF was the most she felt she could cut.
“I have nothing else left. If we are going to do reductions beyond that, we’d have to look at the support we’re giving to the non profits. That’s totally your decision, I’m giving you $213,000. If you want to cut the Library, that’s up to you,” she said.
She also cautioned them about cutting the excess fund balance,
“What worries me, with the uncertainty in Hartford, if you cut the fund balance this year, and we know these budgets are tighter, we’re not going to be generating as big a surplus, next year you’re going to forget, because you’ll create a $4 million problem. You’ll ask me for a much bigger reduction than I can afford, and you’ll ask the BOE for a much bigger reduction than they can afford. I want you to think about that.”
The BOF members agreed that cutting the town’s non-profits wouldn’t be prudent. “To go against the library and other things I don’t think is right. They didn’t help us get in this pickle,” BOF chairman Jeffrey Rutishauser said, adding, “I can’t see going further than what Lynne has offered.”
So it was decided that the Board of Selectmen’s proposed budget was reduced by $213,000, to bring it to $31,015,101.
Discussing the Board of Education’s Proposed Budget
BOE chair Bruce Likly had sat through the earlier part of the meeting, when the BOF members had each given thoughts on what should or shouldn’t get cut and why. Some of the BOF members were critical of the Board of Education and of things Likly had said during the weeks leading up to the budget deliberations. While he had sat through their comments Wednesday night, it seemed he wasn’t sitting easily, and asked for a chance to make a statement.
“Lynne had an opportunity to say something. Can I speak to you a moment before you deliberate?” he asked. It was clear he was trying to contain his frustration and unhappiness at the hefty cuts that some members of the BOF were proposing and how they characterized the school district’s practices.
“I know you have a very difficult job. It’s important to remember how many people showed up at Middlebrook this year. I recognize that the ‘yeses’ have been disappearing over the last few years, but they’ve come back and they’ve tried to share their opinions with you.
“I have a couple of questions that I’d like you to reflect upon as you go through your deliberations. How many of you have sat on the Board of Education and gone through the work that we’ve gone through? How many of you have been to more than three or four BOE meetings in the last 6-9 months? How many of you have degrees in education? How many of you have degrees in special education education? How many of you have degrees in union labor law? How many of you have legal law degrees? We deal with issues that these professionals deal with every single day. They have put together an incredibly thoughtful budget. It does cut to the bone. That little line item you flashed back and forth on, that’s to the marrow. I ask you to think about that. I know there are small places we could find to cut, but they’re small, they’re not anywhere near the sizes you’re talking about.”
The first to respond was Peter Balderston, the member recommending that the education budget be entirely cut back to a flat year-to-year level. Likly’s plea didn’t make him back down from his position; if anything, he was just as staunch in his belief.
“I don’t think it requires detailed understanding of special ed and stuff like that to do the kind of thoughtful analysis we’ve done, in terms of understanding macro issues in the BOE. I certainly recognize there’s a lot of detail that goes into fashioning those budgets. But you can’t ignore the macro picture which I think is very much in our purview to consider. There’s more opportunity in that budget. When times are hard, and after many, many years of very generous budgets, you’ve got to sharpen the pencil, and I don’t think that’s taken place, which is why I’m not supportive of an increase this year. I’m not talking about cuts to this year, I’m talking flat for this year.”
Richard Creeth seemed to try to mediate between the polar opposites.
“I just wish those cuts would come from the BoE and not from us. Because we don’t know the damage that we do, by imposing those cuts on them. We need to work with them to bring those cuts to us next year,” he said.
Walter Kress said that’s why he had advocated for a three-year budget so that the two boards could work “side by side.” Her also had his recommendations for how to cut.
“When I mention a lot of these things, they’re small, they’re $40,000. That doesn’t get us to the end, but there needs to be a thoughtful deep look. I’ve spent 6 or 7 hours. I’m the only one on the board that has children in the schools. We see what’s going on with the schools. I’m asking you to go back self assess. To get back to a flat budget is difficult to do. I’m concerned about the size of the classes and cutting classroom teachers needs to be off the plate. That’s not a solution that serves this town at all. But I think there are areas within administration, within sports, in small pieces. I think you have to go back and find, to get you down, if not to flat, to a 0.5 percent. Can you find 10 or 12 $50,000 things? Do we need a music therapist? I’m not an expert on that but that just doesn’t seem like a job that’s going to make a huge difference, even to a special needs child. And implement what the [DMC special education] study recommended. I don’t understand why further progress can’t be made.”
Likly cut in, clearly frustrated: “I’m trying to be respectful of your meeting and not respond to all of your comments. But there’s a logical answer to every one of your questions. And I’m sitting here, biting my cheek.”
BOF member John Kalamarides tried to diffuse the tension:
“Bruce is at great disadvantage. We’ve made giant leaps, looking at [the numbers] But let me emphasize, after 12 years of working in higher education, you cannot look at an institution, a school district and say, ‘cut here, cut there.’ It doesn’t work that way. There are union contracts, all kinds of situations, that’s why I suggested leave it with 1.1% this year but go into a series of discussions of three-year plans, and have good one-on-ones. They know we’re dead serious. If you give them a longer time to answer these questions, we won’t lose Bruce to a heart attack tonight. You’ve brought up good questions. He’s prohibited from saying anything by procedure, and that’s really not fair. I think we’ve got to go ahead carefully. That’s why I said, make it a two-year budget.”
Warren Serenbetz, who has served the longest on the BOF, noted that there’s been frequent talk about having the BOE put together 3-year plans, “and it never materialized.”
“I think there’s $400,000-$500,000 that can be cut, without hurting them. We’ve asked Lynne to come up with some more, I don’t think it wouldn’t be fair to ask the Board of Ed to come up with some more,” he noted.
Creeth said he be more comfortable with a cut of $400,000 than $1 million.
“I’m uncomfortable mandating this. We’re almost giving them guidance tonight [on next year]. We’re all in agreement with that. I just worry making really draconian cuts—”
Balderston interjected, “We’re not talking about cuts.
Creeth rephrased: “Cuts from what their plan is for the next year. If you put together a whole complicated plan, a lot of resources and juggling and somebody comes along and says, you’ve got a few weeks to get rid of $1 million. I don’t know what the consequences would be. We’ve heard loudly from a majority of Wiltonians that they are concerned about providing a quality education in Wilton. That worries me. I cannot go to a $1million cut. I could go to [$400,000] but I don’t think I could go beyond that.”
Rutishauser seemed to feel that the BOE wasn’t really trying to be cooperative or hopeful that the BOE would fulfill a request of a 3-year plan. He didn’t seem to want to ease up on the BOE.
“We’ve been saying this for years, look at enrollment, gear toward enrollment. I haven’t seen a lot, I’ve seen some, not a lot. I’ve heard, ‘We’re all fixed costs.’ I’ve heard, ‘We’re so complicated you can’t understand it.’ We have it every year, it’s the same every year. ‘We’ll get serious next year.’ It’s been three years of not being serious and now we’re starting to accelerate down that curve, and play catch up. Is this another, ‘Now we’ll get serious next year.’? Are we going to play kick the can down the road another year? It’s got to be a strong statement about aligning resources to a declining enrollment.”
Most of the BOF members seemed to be accepting of the idea of asking the Board of Education to make $400,000 in cuts to their proposed budget—even if that meant that taxes would have to rise somewhat.
“There’s a growth rate we’re going to have to have. Getting to a zero growth rate in taxes is all well and good. When I ran, my platform was to arrest the rate of growth of taxes—that doesn’t mean get to zero, or reverse—slow that rate. If you can get down around 2-percent, that’s something collectively the town can say, ‘That was very thoughtful, I can support that.’ And going forward it’s not going to start from scratch,” said Kress.
Many of the BOF members kept returning to the idea of keeping the BOE to a promise of putting together a 3-year budget plan. Balderston, in particular, was a fan of bringing knowledge and practices from the corporate world to manage the school district.
“I don’t know anything here, I came from the private sector. You’re compelled to follow those things. I disagree that you can’t bring to bear within our community best practices from the private sector. I go back to my numbers: The taxpayer in this town has experienced a 3.27% tax increase over the last 10 years. That’s almost twice the rate of inflation. We owe it to the taxpayers to do that,” he said.
Kalamarides tried to communicate that the school system may not always operate like a corporation, especially in one particular area—labor contracts.
“A lot of [the increase] in education is due to teacher contract,” he explained.
Balderston pointed back to declining enrollment. “You can get to a lower rate of increase by shaving your staff. We haven’t seen that. We’re going in the opposite direction.”
Again, Likly chimed in, saying, “I can’t stay quiet at that. “We were at 609, we’re now at 593. We are shaving staff.
Again, Balderston didn’t budge. “But not to the degree that you’re experiencing declining enrollment. I think that’s a reasonable and rational question to ask.”
Likly answered him. “To understand that, you have to understand the implication in special education. If you look at what’s happened in special education law, you can see a balloon in our staff directly related to that. We’re trying to shift the pendulum back. The DMC report was part of that, but what it’s really geared toward trying to address the performance gap. It’s going to take a little time. We’re trying to turn the Queen Mary around in the canal, it won’t happen over night.
The two continued to go back and forth, having a difficult time seeing eye-to-eye.
“I take issue with pointing out that we’re not trying to work with you. The BOE put together the business operations subcommittee two years ago, to try to start to work together with you. It has not gone the way it could, but every year it gets better. We’re at a 1.27 percent this year because of the work that we did with your folks this year. I’m optimistic we’ll be able to increase those efficiencies over time. It can’t happen overnight. We need to work together as a team. I don’t want cuts. I’m confident that if you come forward recommending $400,000 cut, the BoE will do everything in its power to make sure that the $400,000 [cut] will happen far, far, away from the classroom.”
That didn’t satisfy Balderston.
“It’s not enough. It’s my first year on the BoF. What Jeff has said, about needing to see long term strategic planning, which was not forthcoming at all this year from the BOE. This town has been extraordinarily generous to the BOE over the last seven years when there was declining enrollment. It’s incumbent upon them to have some thought for the taxpayer, facing the ugly realities of declining enrollment. I’ve heard, ‘You don’t really understand what we do so you shouldn’t dig into it. We need to be made partners. We should be given purview into some of those operational things and be made educated about them. And not be told, ‘You don’t know the details about education.’ I think we’ve got to have a discipline on behalf of taxpayers, that shows the schools are taking seriously this rather inexorable decline in enrollment, which has been happening for seven years now, and it has to be answered.”
Both Rutishauser and Balderston seemed intent on reinforcing the importance of a 3-year plan from the BOE. Balderston mentioned that Ridgefield does it because their town charter mandates it. Rutishauser suggested that for next year’s budget process, if the BOE budget doesn’t include a 3-year plan, to refuse to accept it for consideration.
“Don’t even send it down the road to us, without a 3-year plan,” he said, looking at Likly.
Kalamarides tried to remind them that what was involved wasn’t just numbers and figures. “You need to get to know the school system better. You need to talk to people who are working in the school system and what they’re up against. It will help you look at the 3-year plan better.”
Balderston answered, “I don’t mean to make light, that these are just facts and figures. I know we’re talking about kids, but we’ve presented pretty strong evidence, that there is not the kind of discipline that should be present in the budget that other school districts do.”
Rutishauser, who was one of the toughest on the budget this year, said that $400,000 was like a half-step, in light of what he said was going to be “an even tougher budget year. Next year, it’s got to stay pretty darn close to being flat. Next year we’re headed towards a cliff. Once we get past that I think it’s going to be better.”
Ultimately, the BOF voted 5-1 to ask the BOE to reduce their FY-17 budget by $400,000, and bring it down to $80,576,640.