One week after public feedback on the Board of Selectmen‘s proposed FY’24 town budget, the Board of Finance (BOF) held another public hearing last night (Monday, March 27), this time for resident input and questions on the Board of Education‘s proposed FY’24 school budget.

It was the first time ever that a public hearing was held in a hybrid meeting format from Middlebrook Auditorium, with attendees able to participate both in-person and remotely via Zoom

That was one of several differences from recent years. In 2022, the school budget hearing drew fewer than 15 residents (only six of whom spoke during public comment) and wrapped up at the one-hour mark. In contrast, close to 50 people attended in person last night — not including school and town employees or public officials — while about 100 people watched on Zoom; more than 30 residents offered public comment, and the meeting went on nearly twice as long as last year.

Also different — this year’s BOE budget ask of $90,581,692 represents a 4.5% year-over-year increase, higher than last year’s 3.26% increase request. Combined with the BOS proposed $34,673,595 FY’24 operating and capital budget — a 2.15% increase — Wilton could be looking at an overall mill rate increase of 5.69%.

BOF Sets the Stage

As he did one week before, BOF Chair Michael Kaelin explained the budget components being considered.

  • The Board of Education‘s proposed budget increased by $3,903,830 to $90,581,692 — a 4.5% year-over-year increase
  • The Board of Selectmen’s proposed operating and capital budget increased by $730,231 to $34,673,595 — a 2.15% increase
  • The cost of debt service is increasing by $1,329,750 — a 14.73% increase
  • The tax relief program for the elderly and disabled is down by $110,000 — a 1.03% decrease
  • Other revenues decreased by $181,092 — 3.24% decrease
  • The total funds required increased by $6,023,449 to $136,966,349 — a 4.6% increase
  • The Grand List increased by $44,826,930 to $4,402,822,211 — a 1.03% increase
  • The resulting mill rate would increase by 1.6049 to 29.8338 — a 5.69% increase

Beginning April 3, the BOF will meet to decide what budget to recommend to the Town Meeting. Kaelin described what the Town Charter specifies BOF members must consider to do so:

  • The views of the Town’s citizens
  • The financial resources of the Town
  • The extent to which, in the BOF’s collective judgment, the BOE and BOS can find savings within their respective budget requests
  • The appropriateness of revenue, debt service and general fund balance amounts
Board of Finance Chair Michael Kaelin speaks at the March 27 public hearing on the FY’24 proposed Board of Education budget. Credit: GOOD Morning Wilton

Kaelin noted one important distinction regarding the BOE’s proposed budget: while the BOF can ask the BOE to adjust its budget proposal, it cannot say where that adjustment should be made.

“The Board of Finance does not have any line-item authority over the Board of Education’s budget. All we can do is make a recommendation at the Town Meeting on the total appropriation to the BOE and it’s up to the BOE as to how that appropriation is allocated,” Kaelin said.

He reiterated another point that’s important for Town of Wilton electors (registered voters and property owners in Wilton) to remember:

Once the recommended budget is brought to the Annual Town Meeting on Tuesday, May 2, only electors present in person can make motions; motions can only be made to decrease that budget — motions to increase the budget are not allowed. Only the people physically present at the meeting can then decide if and how to adjust the budget. Whatever the people present at the Tuesday evening meeting decide is what the town voters will vote on.

Voting begins after the Tuesday, May 2 meeting adjourns, and then continues on Saturday, May 6, from 8 a.m.-6 p.m.

BOE Chair: “There’s only so long you can do more with less.

Board of Education Chair Ruth DeLuca speaks at the March 27 public hearing on the FY’24 proposed Board of Education budget. Credit: GOOD Morning Wilton

This year was BOE Chair Ruth DeLuca‘s first time presenting a budget at a public hearing, and she made the most of the opportunity, starting with reinforcing the notion that Wilton is primarily “about the schools.”

“Wilton is many things. We are ‘Wilton Strong’. We are ‘One Town, One Team’. We have pride. And as countless community conversations begin with, ‘We moved here for the schools,’ most importantly, Wilton educates.”

She added, “As a community, we expect excellent results at a great value. We educate and we do it well.”

Her presentation was geared toward explaining that Wilton’s educators have produced “remarkable achievements” while each year doing more with less budgetary support, and that even with “the largest budget increase request in recent history,” the FY’24 budget proposal is one that still simply “maintains the minimum” required.

[Editor’s note: GMW has covered much of the budget details this year in past stories as the budget was developed by Superintendent Kevin Smith and adopted by the BOE. This story will focus more on DeLuca’s presentation in support of that budget as opposed to actual dollar amounts and allocations.]

Among the achievements, DeLuca led off by pointing to the State Department of Education 2022 Next Generation Accountability Index naming Wilton as CT’s number-one performing district. “We are preparing our students for success in college, career and life better than any other district,” she said.

Credit: Wilton Board of Education
Credit: Wilton Board of Education

With salaries and benefits as the largest driver (79%) of the proposed BOE budget, DeLuca emphasized the “human capital” behind the effort, and one that needs to shift rapidly as technology evolves and the world constantly changes. She implied that keeping the district “excellent” depends on funding the budget request fully, calling it “a monetary expression of our mission, values and expectations.”

Credit: Wilton Board of Education

“The Wilton Public School System is a human capital education enterprise, organized and operated to advance our mission, values and expectations,” she said.

Perhaps alluding to Kaelin’s earlier remark about the BOF not having line-item oversight of the BOE budget, DeLuca seemed protective of each line in that budget as built.

“Every line item of this budget reflects the considered judgment of our superintendent and this board about the best way to organize our programs and resources in order to protect and nourish our achievements and investments.”

Despite the “largest [budget] increase in recent history,” DeLuca said the FY’24 request had already been pared back from a much larger (5.99%) earlier draft, and she acknowledged “this budget doesn’t add anything new.”

“This budget is a maintenance budget and this year maintenance costs more,” she said. “The higher than usual ask is a direct reflection of the current economic environment … and is the minimum to operate the next school year without compromising the services and programs we currently provide.”

DeLuca pointed to increased costs, negotiated salary increases, and rising healthcare expenses reflective of current inflation levels impacting expenditures for diesel fuel, outplacement, natural gas, transportation, building repair materials, and utilities, among others areas.

She addressed the question of cost-per-pupil spending.

“Per pupil expenditure does not tell us how much it costs to educate each individual student and does often not correlate with the overall quality of the program,” she said, noting that Wilton is within the average cost-per-pupil of comparable school districts, and lower than some districts Wilton “look[s] to for inspiration.”

Credit: Wilton Board of Education

Again DeLuca said while the proposed budget only lets the district “hold steady and stand ready,” it does allow Wilton to “protect sustain and nourish what we currently have.”

The proposed budget would continue to support:

  • narrowing unfinished learning gaps
  • keeping class sizes at the lower range
  • keeping staff previously paid for by COVID grants
  • keeping staff ratios similar to comparable districts
  • providing “our world-class teachers with world-class professional development”
  • providing an inclusive and safe school climate
  • focusing on social-emotional learning and mental health support
  • supporting students with special needs
  • meeting demands of 21st-century learning with technology, infrastructure and more
  • hiring the best teachers
  • working to raise growth and achievement in both academics and the arts
  • implementing the accelerated learning model using data to inform classroom instruction, practice, and learning
  • supporting program and curriculum development in math
  • refining the reading program
  • developing a new STEM class at Middlebrook
  • offering new courses at Wilton High School
  • cultivating arts and sports programs
  • creating new experiences beyond the classroom
  • conducting curriculum reviews and integrating the findings

One notable item DeLuca referenced was professional development, specifically mentioning the role of teacher coaches, an area some critics — including on the BOF — have suggested could be eliminated to find cost savings. DeLuca defended coaching as part of critical professional development offered to teachers and said, “It is worth noting that professional development, including coaching, counts for less than 2% of the overall budget.”

Wilton is not alone in facing budget pressures, and DeLuca said the district’s request “falls in line within our DRG (District Reference Group).”

Credit: Wilton Board of Education

After pointing out that Wilton’s average budget increase is “a lean 1.27%” over the last eight years, DeLuca compared the district budget growth rate over the last nine years with other schools in the DRG.

“Over the last nine years, Wilton’s annual budget growth rate is almost half that of our next closest comparable district. We stand at 13%, and Weston and Westport are at 24%; Darien is at 26%, New Canaan is at 28%, and Ridgefield is at 30%,” she said, adding that Wilton’s projected change in average growth for FY’24 is 1.71% — also the lowest in the DRG.

Credit: Wilton Board of Education

After ruminating about ‘what could have been’ if the district hadn’t been held to such “lean” increases, she said, “There’s only so long you can do more with less. Degradation over time is real.”

But the ‘what if’ of a possible budget reduction, either by the Board of Finance or at the Annual Town Meeting, also had DeLuca thinking. She said it would mean programs and services would be compromised.

“We would not be able to maintain current staffing levels and programs. There are no savings to be had without compromising programs and services. We cannot expect excellence if we do not fund it,” she said, adding, “We as a community must be able to judge the tax-saving benefit against the cost to our schools.”

She concluded with a last plea to leave the budget as proposed, saying that while “this budget doesn’t dream… it allows us to maintain excellence at a great value.”

Public Comment: “I Support the BOE Budget” Over and Over

Almost three dozen people spoke during the hearing’s public comment section. The vast majority spoke in favor of supporting the school budget as proposed. While we’re not quoting everyone who spoke, among the standout points made were:

Liz Alleva: “Financially, when you support the school budget, you also attract businesses to our town because they want to be in a wonderful town. That grows our economy. When you support the school budget and you support education, you have new families coming into town — that keeps property values high.”

Sara Sclafani: “Clearly the budget ask this year is larger than in years past. Aside from inflation and fixed costs, I believe this is due in large part to the reality that the budgets advanced in previous years have been much too low. It’s only a matter of time before such a low budget is no longer sustainable. And for Wilton Public Schools that time is now. … any further cuts by the Board of Finance would place our educational programming at serious risk. I also want to specifically voice my support for the instructional coaches and the over $1 million investment to continue to employ them. The instructional coaching model is not anything new… It was first implemented in our district in the 2015-2016 school year and our district’s performance continually prove that the investment has been well worth the cost.”

Meghan Newton: “I’m here to voice my support for the full 4.5% budget increase requested by the BOE. If the BOF approves the full request of the Boards of Selectmen and Education, I understand this will result in a 5.69% tax increase. For a family currently paying $15,000 a year in property taxes, this will amount to an increase of about $850 per year. Not nothing, to be sure, [but] approximately $2.30 a day, a drip coffee order at Starbucks, less than the cost of a lunch purchase at Miller-Driscoll School.”

David Tatkow: “The school system in Wilton is quite simply for many residents the most precious selling point for the area. Even if we were to ignore the unpriceable, intangible intellectual social and physical development the system fosters for our kids and view the benefits purely from a capitalistic perspective, being recognized as a town having an elite public school system is a goldmine for our property values as well.

“We, unfortunately, live in 2023, the time of high global inflation. Pricing has gone up significantly for everything from gas to eggs. And as such, why should we require less of an increase for something as essential as public education?

“The feedback from the town is overwhelmingly in favor of the small sacrifice needed now for our kids. It is highly disappointing to me that some members of our town’s elected Board of Finance are on the public record, claiming otherwise. To me, some members are bringing into their elected positions a personal agenda of intentionally minimizing the funding of public sector education.

“Perhaps even more troubling are public comments attempting to question the professional educational judgment of our educators around the use of coaching to support teachers. Our town’s Board of Ed knows exactly what is required to run a system through years of professional experience and has the track records to back this up… For lack of a better expression, [the BOF] needs to specifically stay in its lane.”

Michael Richard Powers: “If you look at audited statements for the past six years, actually what the proposed budget is, you’re off by $130 million, almost $21-and-a-half million a year — what they spend to what you allocate, there’s a difference. Where is that difference coming from? How can some of the costs that are being allocated or increases that are generated in the proposal, we switch to this amorphous other amount?

“You have one of two options: The Board of Education isn’t properly accounting for their funds or there’s a problem with the auditors. … They’re off for 2021 [by] $32 million; 2020 — $26 million; 2019 — $13.9 million. So the budget that they’re putting forth at the $90 million-and-a-half dollars isn’t their budget. They refuse to provide the entire budget, the line items for all of their expenses. They give it to the auditors.

“My child is actually within the school system. Her teacher is out of central casting, phenomenal, great. My daughter loves her. The issue is, is she’s not the driving factor of my daughter’s success. … [District officials] claim the success of all these articles from U.S. News… It’s the parents that generate 85% of the success of their children.”

Editor’s note: GOOD Morning Wilton spoke with Town/School CFO Dawn Norton and First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice to ask about Powers’ comments. What they said suggests Powers has misread the town’s audited financial statements. The audited financial statements (available online) show the total amount of money the Wilton Public Schools received for any particular fiscal year, which includes 1) the money from the town budget; 2) the state payment for teacher pension and other retirement benefits; 3) other state and federal grants including the Excess Cost Grant; and 4) other fees charged. The budget the BOE requests every year is the town’s portion; the amount Powers suggested is “off” is the remaining amount that comes from state and federal grants and other revenues.

Below is the audited statement for 2021, the year Powers stated the statements showed an unexplained difference of $32 million between the budget and expenses. That difference is actually made up of monies received from the federal and state governments and revenues from other services provided. The same is true for every other year, including the years Powers mentioned in his comment Monday evening. Moreover, this number was unusually high in 2021 because the year included Covid-related grants. (notes in red added for editorial emphasis)

Brian [unclear]: “The 4.5% increase is in line with where inflation is. Our heating bills are all up, electricity is up. It’s understandable that the public school education will be up… I’m a proponent that it should be higher. [applause] From reading the town’s website, [it says,] “…nestled in Fairfield County, Wilton has consistently top-ranked schools.” You’re barely telling us where the town is, but you’re telling us that we have the best schools that Connecticut has to offer. We need to continue to provide the best schools that Connecticut has to offer.”

Maureen Brown: “I felt inclined to offer a rebuttal to the gentleman who said it’s mostly the parents. While I would like to take credit for my son’s achievement, if it hadn’t been for Miller Driscoll, I wouldn’t have realized that he needed reading intervention in kindergarten. He was struggling and they caught it. They caught it early. He’s already out of reading intervention and I fully credit that to the teachers there. So I’m in full support of the Board of Education budget.”

David Mantilla: “We left the city looking for a town to move to. Wilton had a brochure, “40 Things We Love About Our Town,” and on that list was the school system. And that was a big reason why my family moved to Wilton. So my ask is that you keep that promise, that you keep Wilton a town that really believes in the schools. I [also] don’t think it’s enough — 5% increase when inflation is much higher? I mean, let’s be real. Is that really gonna cover our cost going forward? … Keep a promise to people who continue to move here of investing in our schools, it’s the right thing to do.”

Warren Serenbetz: “This is probably the largest budget increase request since 2002. Over that 20-year timeframe, budget requests have been made and usually cut back year after year. Yet in that time, our town still has a great police force, fire department, and by looking at the presentation seen tonight, our schools still rank high and student metrics are impressive. I believe the current total budget request is too high and needs to be reduced below 4%.”

Lara Paschalidis: “People that run the schools, the Board of Ed, all the teachers, the administrators, they’re very supportive. [As Wilton High School PTSA vice-president], working with the Board of Ed, working with the teachers, there is nothing that they take lightly. I’ve sat in meetings with these people and there’s a lot of things that they are not able to fund. There’s so many things that we…discuss that there is no funding for. We as parents have to sit here and figure out a way to support them. So I’m here to support the budget.”

Virginia Benin: “I’ve been here for almost 50 years. My children went through the schools and, guess what? I’m willing to pay. I benefited. My children benefited. And I think it is shortsighted, given what has been going on in our world and economy, to play with the programs that the Board of Ed has determined will give the best education as we go forward. And I encourage you to make that decision to support the budget.”

Olga Traub: “You have been historically conservative in funding the Board of Education budget, but it’s time to put education first here in Wilton in order to continue the excellence of Wilton’s public education system. … Our superintendent has followed your directive more than twice to reduce the ask…. We’re mindful of the financial challenges we are facing. Significant strides have been made to streamline this budget request. Difficult decisions have been made with our staff in the middle school in order to streamline this request. Yes, a 5.69% increase in our taxes is a heavy lift. We all acknowledge that. But so is education.”

Meaghan Baron: [Editor’s note: Baron has written for GMW in the past. She does not write about Wilton schools. Her comments reflected her personal views as a parent of public school students.] “If low taxes were my goal, I would never have moved to Wilton or Fairfield County or anywhere in the NYC metro area. A 5% increase in my property taxes amounts to $60 a month. What will squeezing every last possible dollar out of our Board of Education budget do? Will it save me $20 a month? With all due respect, I can’t believe the town would consider gambling the performance of our schools and the future property values of our home for savings that are paltry.”

Maria Espinal: “At the end of the day when the budgets are being cut, it’s going to affect our special needs children. And I moved here coming from a district that quite honestly, I wasn’t really as involved and was never able to voice my opinion. And ever since I moved to Wilton, I feel like I am a part of this town and I can advocate for my child and be heard. And I just want you to consider, just to think about our children, especially our special child.”

Heather Christopher: Being in investments, the year over year CPI [for] December 2022 was 6.5%. This is a 4.5% increase in the school budget. So we’re actually underfunding, we’re not maintaining, we’re cutting just by having a budget that increases by 4.5%.

Kim Hall: “Every year, [Superintendent] Kevin [Smith], the board, and all our school staff have balanced fiscal conservatism and strategic focus, making hard, smart decisions that are right for both kids and taxpayers, including Genesis and the pre-K expansion. Eventually these essentially flat budgets simply aren’t sustainable to keep us moving forward as a community or a district.

“This is a treading water budget. I know 4.5% sounds high, … but let’s be honest, my savings account has a 4.5% APFY. This is just treading water. And while I’m not satisfied with treading water, I am willing to accept that it’s an appropriate conservative option given our current environment. Further cutting this budget beyond the self imposed cuts that the board and schools have already baked in would be a mistake. Student needs post-Covid continue to be incredibly high and any cost you choose to make will directly affect kids and thus, our community as a whole. …I’d much rather be speaking in support of a budget that was able to continue making advancements instead of simply treading water and deferring its dreams.” 

Julie Corbett: “From a taxpayer/small business owner perspective, I cannot keep increasing my professional consulting rates to keep pace with the rates and inflation. I absolutely understand the pinch and heavily lift of residents. It’s a lift our family is willing to take. I encourage continued discussions amongst town leaders to examine how to increase and diversify the grand list so that expenditures don’t rest so heavily on residential taxpayers in our town. … The return on investment for education is a lagging indicator. Decisions made now have long-term implications and I encourage you to fully fund the requested budget.”

Amy Calandria: “I have to admit that I have not read any of the documents or briefly have read through them. And I was hoping actually in this meeting that I would hear a little bit more. … I would have liked to have seen a little bit more data on enrollment and how we can attract businesses. … I love the Wilton District schools, but again, I’m looking for facts.”

Patrick Pearson: “You can count me in the group of people who moved to town in the last 24 months specifically for this school system. … One of the core responsibilities of an elected official is to carry out the will of the people who elected them. And it’s clear from all the public comments I’ve heard tonight that there’s overwhelming support for this budget as proposed. … It’s pretty clear what the ask is of our elected officials — to represent the views and desires of the citizens in the community that elected them, which in this case would be to approve this budget.”

Michael Salit: “It seems there’s a certain DNA that follows for chairpeople of the Board of Education that use a tactic that pretty much goes along the lines of, “The sky is falling down!” We’re already talking about a budget of over $85 million in this town for schools education…. I certainly oppose the increase of 4.5% — down 25% from the original at just under 6%. Dr. Smith — who I think does a tremendous job and he has my highest respect — he found that 25% reduction in less than two weeks. I can’t help but wonder what more scrubbing might find.

“Our kids are doing pretty darn well, even with all the challenges, whether it’s been a pandemic, whether it’s been some of the other things… I would argue one of the most important things that the Board of Finance has to consider is the whole town. There are people still hurting in this town from the pandemic, losses of jobs, other things.

“While I understand that there’s a small number of people relative to the total population here in this town that are in that auditorium this evening, and I appreciate your fervent support for the education budget and you’re willing to pay, there are a lot of people in town [for] who that’s a lot of money to ask them to pay. … Again, I caution to the Board of Finance: Please recognize that the responsibility is the totality of the town and not just those with a vested interest, those that are there this evening.”

 Yana Siegel: “The totality of our town revolves around our schools. I support our budget and I would ask you to do the same.”

4 replies on ““We cannot expect excellence if we do not fund it”: Residents Show Up to Support BOE’s Appeal for FY’24 Budget Request”

  1. I look forward to reading tortured explanations from the BoF about how parents are all alike and don’t know what they’re talking about and how none of this very public display of support actually counts and how they haven’t really heard from very many people who support the budget and how only the results of their beloved easily-hackable anonymous survey (even assuming that that turns out more favorably for the budget hawks) are worth factoring in.

    On the other hand, this does have me feeling very hopeful about the larger direction of Wilton politics – parents getting engaged and asserting themselves; I hope some of the speakers at this meeting will turn around and run for office this fall.

  2. One important thing that I took away from this meeting had to do with the community survey. A parent asked a BoF member how many residents had filled out the survey and his response was, about a handful. The BoF has gotten the message out to the public, as well as GMW. They have made it very easy to access and fill out the survey. The deadline for completing the survey is Friday (3 more days). The BoF also made it clear that the survey carries weight in their deliberations. The public comments may have been overwhelmingly in favor of the budget at the hearing Monday night, but as one person that spoke via Zoom said, it is a small number of people in the auditorium, relative to the total population of this town. Fill out the survey, make it a priority to attend the town meeting on Tuesday May 2nd. The decision to approve this budget, or to decrease it could go either way.

    1. People should absolutely fill out the survey, but also, the lack of interest in the survey ought to itself carry weight in their deliberations.

      If voters aren’t strongly motivated to support or oppose the budget, then it seems reasonable to assume that they’re satisfied with a ‘maintenance budget,’ and with the BoE increase coming in less than the rate of inflation, it seems appropriate for the BoF to take them at their word that that is indeed what this budget is. Cutting the budget further is a dramatic step that they really only ought to consider in the face of overwhelming public opposition to the original proposal, which clearly hasn’t materialized.

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