The Wilton Board of Education met yesterday afternoon for a budget workshop with school administrators. The meeting is part of the BoE’s annual process of putting together a budget for next year, which will then be presented to Wilton’s Board of Finance.

Yesterday’s workshop was the second such budget meeting this school year; it followed a meeting on Dec. 19 at which Dr. Gary Richards, school superintendent, and the principals of each school presented their initial numbers to the BoE for school year 2014-15.

The first pass on the budget as presented Dec. 19 came in at a 5.42 percent proposed increase over the current year’s budget. Given that the Board of Finance has asked both the Board of Selectmen and Board of Education to stick to a 1.75 percent increase from last year, the BoE asked school officials to reduce their initial estimates.

Based on that feedback, Richards and staff presented revised numbers yesterday, outlining where they had tried to reduce, and gave the board a new budget that was 4.66 percent higher than last year, which the board must now consider.

School Officials make the case for their asks

“The direction we were given was to reduce non-contractual items to the 2013-14 budget level. We did not reduce any of the staffing requests, most of which is in special education. The special education requests are primarily in support of IEP and are therefore considered contractual,” Richards told the board.

Among the budgeted requests that principals were asked to reduce were training and conferences, field trips, audio-visual, instructional materials, general supplies, test and evaluation supplies, textbooks, periodicals and newspapers, equipment—new and replacement, and assemblies and graduation.

“Holding these items flat generated about $230,000 in savings,” Richards reported.

In addition, due to a recent updated health benefit projection from the district’s healthcare consultant, the administration was able to reduce the budget request by and additional $208,000, which Richards called “a bit of good news.”

For the revised numbers, Richards broke out the overall year-to-year increases over last year. He said that the “regular education” budget shows an increase at this point of $1,724,000, a 2.92 percent increase from FY 13-14, while the special education budget is projected to increase $1.6 million, representing a 9.44 percent increase year-to-year. The budget for security items grouped together represents a $222,000 increase, which is a 202-percent increase over last year.

Richards challenged an assertion made at the first workshop on Dec. 19 by a BoE member that there were few new initiatives put forth by the school. The superintendent pointed out that the budget reflects and encompasses new proposals and ideas, including “reorganizing house-based instructional teams at Cider Mill, enhanced math instruction at Middlebrook for both special ed students and students who need remediation in general ed, further renovations to the STEM classroom at Middlebrook and a new AP computer science program at Wilton High School.”

He added more “context” as to why there are no more initiatives reflected in the budget. “We’re focused on sustained work on the implementation of the new math curriculum, the new STEM program; ongoing efforts at promoting deeper literacy in reading, writing and critical thinking for K-12, and curriculum mapping. There’s sustained work that this supports that we believe is very important.”

In addition, Richards said there’s continued focus on aligning curriculum to the new Common Core Standards as well as gearing up for the SBAC, the new standardized test platform adopted by the district this year.

He added that he wanted to encourage the board to see the budget as presented to reflect an emphasis on students and student life over numbers. Each of the individual principals tailored their specific sections accordingly.

For example, Cider Mill’s Dr. Jennifer Mitchell explained a reorganization that would increase collaboration amongst teachers and provide for more cohesive, inclusive student instruction, within each of the four “houses” in the school. The change is designed to make the education the students receive ‘more qualitative’ as teachers are able to coordinate and plan together better, according to Mitchell.

WHS principal Robert O’Donnell mentioned as part of his presentation that enrollment-driven increases will drive teacher additions at his school, which he hoped the board would support and not cut further.

“We do our mathematical models each year on what we feel to have reasonable and appropriate class sizes for our students.  We came in at 4.0 FTE (full-time equivalent positions), and we have cut that to 3.0 FTE. We’re looking long-term. We are excited about this class coming next year but it does put us at 1,373 students for next school year; the following year we’re projecting 1,377; a slight dip the year after to 1,365; and then four years out we’re at 1393 in the ’16-17 budget year. This is certainly not short-term thinking, we’re really going to need this FTE, and I’m hoping to convince the board that at least this 3.0 increase in FTE to meet students’ needs. Right now, at a 3.0 increase, we will be very close to historical highs. We feel it’s necessary.”

Bruce Likly, BOE chair, followed up by pointing out next year’s incoming freshman class will add 60 additional students above this year’s high school population. “At 20 students per, 3.0 FTEs, it’s kind of logical, simple math.”

On questioning from board member Glenn Hemmerle, O’Donnell confirmed that there is an increase request in the athletic department, including new equipment and coach staffing needs, many of which he said were driven by student interest.

The Board responds to the ask

Likly acknowledged the hard work the administrators put into framing the budget and looking for places to cut. He said that the current school year was “well funded” and he personally hoped to reflect the need to be conservative when it came to asking the town to support the finance needs of the schools.

“I recognize you’re trying to do more and more with less, and yet the town’s in a difficult position, based on the numbers we saw we did a demographic analysis of the town. It’s not as affluent a town. The middle and lower tiers are struggling. We don’t have an increase in students, so it’s an opportunity to look at what can we do vs. what do we have to do.”

He added that he’d like to see more zeros—or no increases—saying, “zeros don’t mean cuts, zeros mean another year of good funding.”

That was countered by board member Chris Stroup, who said he was “anxious to read that the budget was meant to forestall further erosion in qualitative programs. I wonder what the administration might think was necessary to improve programming, not necessarily in the current budget year, but in subsequent ones. How much erosion have we suffered, and what damage have we done in the quality of the education that we provide? How much will we continue to degrade the educational opportunities if we continue to exist on ‘no further increases’?”

Assistant superintendent Chuck Smith addressed board, saying, “One of the things we’re all concerned about is building a capacity of this system so that we can address those increases better as we’re going forward. We’re trying to build our capacity to address those unanticipated special education needs in a   cost-effective way. Keep in mind that we’re trying to keep this cost neutral, but any little investment in the long term will put us in a position of fiscal stability. We purposely tried to invest in a way that would stem costs in the future, with the idea of providing our students with the most effective and best education possible.”

Likly responded, “If we have a way that we can quantify that, so that we can package it up and present it to the town, it’s something I think we have an opportunity to sell to the town. It gets to, What are we giving up? What does it cost to get us the collaboration time, the teacher coaching and the technology that they need. If we can quantify that, and project to the town the benefits, it’s a very powerful story.”

Smith responded, “It’s a long term investment, it’s hard to quantify.”

One of the final points the board members debated was whether or not to consider participation fees. As board member Lory Rothstein pointed out, last year the BoE passed instituting participation fees on the condition that it not be a compulsorily adopted policy again this year. As of now the budget stands without participation fees as an element. District director of finance Ken Post estimated current revenues from student-paid participation fees at approximately $176,000 as of the winter season, with still one sports season left to go.

Once the budget is set by the BoE, it is sent to the Board of Finance, which needs to compile a final budget for the town (along with the budget presented by the Selectmen). The town will hold its Annual Town Meeting on Tuesday, May 6, to be followed by a vote by town residents on whether or not to approve the budget set by the BoF.