“What’s the Message?” Takeaways from the Board of Finance Budget Process

The April 5 Board of Finance meeting

Wilton’s Board of Finance (BOF) met Tuesday evening (April 12) with the primary task of passing a resolution on the Board of Education‘s proposed FY2023 budget.

As GOOD Morning Wilton reported immediately following the meeting, the BOF voted 4-2 in favor of the resolution that would appropriate $86,677,862 for the BOE budget. That amount represents an overall budget increase of 2.21% (up $1.9 million) versus FY2022.

The fact that the vote on the BOE budget and the resulting mill rate was not unanimous (board members Sandy Arkell and Chris Stroup voted in opposition) was just one example of the BOF’s fraught process of reaching budget resolutions for FY2023.
While the BOF did ultimately pass the BOE budget resolution (and all the other resolutions to take to the Annual Town Meeting in May), the process was not exactly smooth. Confusion, disagreements, politics and, at times, a bit of disorder all crept into the BOF process this year, particularly when it came to the BOE budget.

While it may not have been as contentious as some years, those undercurrents were present throughout this year’s budget process, both on Wilton’s various boards and among residents.

Going Up?

Funding for a Wilton High School elevator proved to be a key topic of disagreement, triangulating the BOF, BOE and Board of Selectmen (BOS).

The BOE budget resolution was delayed by disagreement over how to pay the $203,000 cost for the required renovation of the elevator slated for this summer. Some members of the BOF, most vocally BOF Vice Chair Stewart Keonigsbergpushed strongly to pursue the possibility of bonding the project through the Town.

BOF Chair Michael Kaelin recognized the “practical reality” that even if the BOS agreed to consider bonding, the timeline for bonding would not be feasible for funding the elevator. Nonetheless, Kaelin agreed to table the BOE budget deliberations in early April until the BOS could be approached about bonding.

Ultimately, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice made it clear to the BOF in an April 6 BOS meeting that bonding the WHS elevator was simply not an option. The rejection was based on the established policy of the BOS, which requires a minimum expense of $250,000 for any bonded project. (Note: Two other planned elevator projects by the BOE are included in the Town’s Five-Year Bonded Capital Plan, for FY2024 and FY2025. Each one exceeds the minimum $250,000 threshold.)

Knowing there were still lingering questions as to whether the BOS policies could be amended or allow “bundling” of expenses to meet the minimum cost threshold, Vanderslice addressed the bonding question once again when she attended the BOF’s April 12 meeting.

“We are a Moody’s AAA-rated community, one of only a few in the state in Connecticut,” Vanderslice told the BOF. “That saves us money. It means people want to buy our bonds. It makes borrowing cheaper.”

“When they give the rating, they consistently talk about our strong financial management,” Vanderslice continued. “Part of strong financial management is having a bonding policy. They expect us to have a bonding policy. They know what our bonding policy is.”

Vanderslice warned the BOF against trying to change the bonding policy as a tool for solving budget challenges.

“If there’s ever going to be a reconsideration of our bonding policy, it’s going to be done with a great deal of thought, with some research. It will not ever be done — I hope — in response to trying to get to a number for a mill rate or for a Board of Selectmen or Board of Ed budget,” Vanderslice stated.

The WHS elevator funding came under particular scrutiny in part due to the fact that the BOE had presented its FY2023 budget differently than in previous years, separating out capital expenses that would normally be included in the annual BOE budget. Those FY2023 expenses — for identified projects such as asbestos removal, lighting updates, ceiling tile replacement, moisture mitigation and painting — amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars across Wilton schools.

Last fall, at the recommendation of Wilton’s former Chief Financial Officer Anne-Kelly Lenz (who served as a dual CFO for the Town and BOE), the BOE sought to create an operating capital budget for BOE projects that did not rise to the level of bonded projects but could be completed over a longer time horizon than one budget year.

But despite conceptual agreement by all three boards, the practice was never officially adopted. Yet, early in the FY2023 budget process, the BOE presented the budget with capital expenses separated from the BOE operating budget — a move that gave the appearance of a lower budget. Some members of the BOF raised objections to the BOE’s portrayal of its budget proposal as misleading.

Resident Input

From the beginning of the budget process, Kaelin pleaded for residents to give the BOF their input on the BOS and BOE budget proposals.

In addition to inviting residents to email board members, the BOF designed a survey to gauge public sentiment for potential budget and mill rate increases. BOF Clerk Matt Raimondi led the survey effort in late March and shared the findings from over 500 respondents in time for the BOF budget deliberations.

While Raimondi received thanks and praise from members of various boards and the public for his efforts to conduct the survey, not everyone saw its value.

“Each member of the board put whatever weight or consideration or stock into that survey that they thought appropriate,” Kaelin said at the April 12 meeting. “I personally didn’t put any weight on the survey.”

Quickly modifying his comment, Kaelin said, “I wouldn’t say I didn’t put any weight on it, but it was not what made up my decision.”
Unfortunately, the March 23 public hearing on the BOE budget was sparsely attended, giving BOF members little else to work with in their deliberations besides the earlier emails and their own judgment.

Resident Input Intensifies, on Both Sides

The BOF’s decision on April 4 to reduce the BOE’s proposed budget increase proved to be a wake-up call of sorts for residents who had not been paying attention to the budget process. Some had the mistaken impression that the budget had actually been cut below FY 2022.

Rallying efforts were seen on social media, with posts urging fellow residents concerned about the BOE budget to email the BOF. (Editor’s Note: PTA groups were mentioned during the April 12 BOF meeting, but GMW has not gotten confirmation on which schools’ PTAs sent communications to members about the BOE budget.) 

Kaelin was frustrated by what he saw as a lack of understanding among residents as to how the budget process works and a lack of awareness that the process had been unfolding since January. He directed several comments at the April 12 meeting to those residents — many who attended the meeting with a belief that they could still impact the BOF’s deliberations on the budget.

The uproar among those unhappy with the BOF also prompted a backlash among those who supported the BOF actions.

Peter Wrampe, chairman of the Wilton Republican Town Committee wrote to the RTC membership on April 10 warning of “rampant misinformation” about the BOE budget and BOF actions, and suggesting RTC members email the BOF, with specific targets for budget cuts — namely teacher coaches, climate coordinators and administrative costs.

An April 11 letter to the editor at GOOD Morning Wilton from Warren Serenbetz, a former BOF chair, echoed similar ideas, including the suggestion for the BOE to cut teacher coaches and climate coordinators.

So what impact, if any, did all of those late-breaking emails to the BOF have? It’s difficult to tell.

For one reason, there were widely differing accounts presented by BOF members at the April 12 meeting as to the number and the nature of all the emails received since the April 4 meeting.

Board member Chris Stroup asked Raimondi (as BOF Clerk) if he had summarized the emails that were received from residents over the past week.

“We did receive emails from residents, both in favor of what we voted last week, as well as opposed,” Raimondi answered. “I responded to all of them… Is there any more information that you want?”

When Stroup pressed Raimondi as to whether he had compiled the comments in the emails, Raimondi responded tersely, “I suspect you might have.”

In fact, Stroup was prepared with notes about the emails, citing a total of 67 that had been received since April 5 — with the vast majority expressing a preference for the full BOE budget request.

“I’m not suggesting that 67 emails represents a fair sample, just like 544 survey responses may not be a fair sample,” Stroup said. “But out of the 67 [emails], 58 folks were clearly in favor of no change to the proposed Board of Ed budget, and nine were clearly in support of our reduction.”

Later in the discussion, Kaelin referred to “100 emails in the last three days.” GMW reached out to the BOF to clarify the discrepancies about the number of emails, but did not receive any information before publication. We will update this story when we receive the information.

So What’s The Message?

Some residents who spoke during the public comment at the April 12 meeting raised concerns about what they called “the messaging”.

Kara Berghaus was one resident who feared educators are getting the wrong message with the BOF reduction for the BOE budget increase.

“I knew that not much could change tonight, but I did think it was important to show up and speak out,” Berghaus said. “I think it more comes down to the messaging that it sends to our educators and the people who work inside the buildings with our children. They have a tremendous lift every single day, which has only been made more challenging in the pandemic. The needs have only increased. I just don’t think now is the time to cut anything.”

“It is an absolute miracle what these educators do every day. I just hope that moving forward that there could be more collaboration and an understanding of what actually goes on inside the walls of the schools,” Berghaus added.

Olga Zargos-Traub, who said she was a newcomer to Wilton, urged the BOF to seek new ways to communicate with residents and gain resident involvement earlier in the process.

“My husband and [I] attempted to attend as many meetings as we can, respond where we can,” Zargos-Traub said. “But it was obvious that other people were not aware for whatever reason, did not know how to respond, did not know how the process took place. So I’m just advocating for a better way of communicating the importance and the needs of community engagement.”

“There are many new folks that are in town,” she continued. “We don’t know how you guys have been doing this for the last 20 years, and times have changed. Media has changed. Communication has changed. Perhaps look at new ways to engage people differently, so this process is a little more transparent and more well informed from both sides.”

While expressing appreciation and respect for the BOF, BOE Chair Deborah Low also brought up the “messaging” coming out of the BOF process.

“I think I speak for the whole Board of Education in expressing appreciation for your work,” Low told the BOF. “During my years in Wilton, I think that in spite of disagreements about final budget amounts, the BOE and the BOS have aimed to be respectful of each board’s responsibilities and efforts.”

“However, tonight I am a little concerned about the messaging. I think some of the comments made by you were unfortunate because they seemed to that cast doubts on the work of the Board of Education and the Superintendent,” Low continued. “I want to emphasize that the BOE budget development process was comprehensive, careful, thoughtful, and responsible.”

Kaelin took the messaging comments from the previous speakers to heart.

“We have nothing but respect, admiration, and appreciation for everyone on the Board of Education [and] for Dr. Smith,” Kaelin said. “The most concerning thing that’s been said to me tonight is about the messaging.”
“The message I want to get out loud and clear to everybody is that the reason the Wilton public schools are so great is because of the teachers,” Kaelin said. “We have the best teachers you could possibly imagine… and there’s nothing more important to me than supporting the teachers. If I thought I was hurting the teachers by anything I was doing [on the BOF], I wouldn’t do it. We want the teachers to get the message that we’re supporting them.”

Clearly, some residents don’t see a messaging problem.

Jared Martin, who had been a candidate for a seat on the BOE in 2021 and campaigned on similar themes heard during this year’s BOF deliberations, also spoke at the April 12 meeting, offering his thanks to the BOF for having what he called “a mature voice in setting a budget.”

“I applaud you guys for looking at [the budget] situation in a very mature and focused way,” Martin said.

Martin also echoed an earlier speaker, who suggested the BOF should have a representative with an education background, but added that the BOE should have a representative with a finance background, as a way for the two boards to work more effectively together.

Jeffrey Rutishauser, former BOF chair, also offered his support to the BOF.

“I can appreciate how much effort it is and how much challenge it is to try to balance the needs of the education system, the municipality and the taxpayers. You’re the only board that does that,” Rutishauser told the BOF. “You get pressure from all sides. I think you’re doing the right thing. I want to commend you on that. I think you came out to the same result that, had I been with you, I’d have come out with.”

BOF Reach into the BOE Budget

Throughout the budget process, Board of Finance members walked a fine line between vetting the BOE budget and taking a position on how the BOE should spend its money. While the BOF can raise or lower a total BOE budget request, it does not have any authority over specific budget line items.

Despite that, board members sometimes strayed into discussions that could be seen as stepping out of its lane. That was most apparent in discussions about Wilton’s teacher coaching program — which has become something of a hot-button topic in recent times.

Though Raimondi was careful to state he “did not want to tell the Board of Ed how to do their job,” he made the following comments during the April 12 meeting.

“Educators actually reached out to me to share their views on a specific area of the budget that they think should be cut: namely the $1.4 million that we spend on teachers coaches,” Raimondi began. He cited one teacher who he said “wrote” to him (although Raimondi later told GMW the teacher had not emailed him directly but responded to the survey in which respondents were anonymous. He also said he had spoken with other educators who “espoused the [same] sentiments.”)

Raimondi then read what he said was the teacher’s statement:

“I am a teacher, and a resident of Wilton. I have taught here for over 10 years, 28 years in Connecticut, and began teaching in Wilton prior to the adoption of the instructional coaching program. At the school where I teach, we previously had department heads who were stipend[ed] to coordinate curriculum alignment and professional development. These were instructional leaders who were experts in their content — custodians of the departments who knew exactly what implementation of their curriculum looked like. It came at a cost of approximately $100,000. When we adopted the instructional coaching structure, department heads were taken away.

“A truly anonymous survey of the staff will tell you the coaching program is a waste. We have incredibly dedicated, talented teachers with advanced degrees and professional ambitions. Before coaching was implemented, our teachers were leading professional development, facilitated the needs of the departments, and they did this effectively. Currently our departments feel isolated and fragmented. The entire coaching program represents a shift, taking control, agency, inspiration, empowerment, and collaboration away from the classroom teachers and channeling it into an extension of the central office through the coaches.”

Raimondi concluded his comments by saying, “So at least one educator, with three decades of experience, thinks that the teachers’ coaches should come under examination. Potentially that could be a place to find $435,000.”

Low later commented that BOF discussions pinpointing programs like teacher coaches were “not helpful.”

“In some comments tonight, it was implied that it would be simple to make reductions because they are either unnecessary or unpopular programs in the budget,” Low said. “In many years past, there have been other budget targets: sometimes specific sports teams, or pay-to-play fees, how early to start world language, whether full-day kindergarten is worth it, etc. And this year, it’s [teacher] coaches.”

“I don’t think it’s helpful to toss program suggestions around because they appear unnecessary or unpopular to you,” Low said. “There’s a lot of thought and deliberation that goes into our programs.”