When the Board of Finance and Board of Education met jointly on Thursday night, Feb. 9, to review the proposed FY 2024 school budget, Superintendent Kevin Smith joked that the budget should include funds to purchase a giant round table, given that the two boards were seated across from one another at two long, thin tables, just one foot apart.
Despite the positional face-off of the boards, the budget review was far from adversarial. Instead, questions posed by the BOF indicated the benefits of having already met twice with Smith during the current budget season — much earlier in the budget process than in prior years.
The BOF members asked what critical things didn’t make it into the budget because they were cut from early drafts. They asked Smith what he would do with additional funds if he had them. And they asked for details about the challenges the district faces with increasing student mental health needs, rising costs and making up for learning time lost due to the pandemic.
The BOF did ask tougher questions too — what would Smith do if they lowered his proposed 4.75% year-over-year budget increase by 1%, by about $900,000. And they pushed him on why, despite declining student enrollment, Wilton’s per-pupil costs are the highest in its DRG (district reference group) and the number of staff has increased over the years.
The boards also listened to a handful of residents who spoke during public comment, all in support of the proposed budget increase. Michael Kaelin, BOF chair, thanked them for their comments and then made an appeal for residents not only to get engaged in the budget process, but to stay engaged by continuing to share their views on the budget with BOF members.
“The toughest question we have to answer is, how much can the taxpayers in this town afford to pay? And what are they willing to pay?” he said, later adding, “The only way we’re going to get any idea of how much people are willing to pay is if you communicate that to us.”
He listed the various upcoming meetings where residents can provide their input, most especially during public hearings on the proposed budgets — Tuesday, March 21 for the Board of Selectmen, and Monday, March 27 for the BOE.
“Don’t stop tonight. Keep it up and, and keep it up the whole time. … If you want to have the greatest impact, come to that public hearing on March 27 on the Board of Education budget and express your views. Then we do listen to you. We are elected to represent you. We want to hear from you, but it just can’t be one off, one time. We need information and we need a lot of it. And whatever way you want to communicate with us, please do so,” Kaelin said.
Smith’s High-Level Overview of the Budget
Smith led off with a high-level overview of the goals the budget is structured to meet:
- Providing world-class comprehensive education to prepare students with 21st-century skills
- Raising overall achievement after the pandemic, particularly in math
- Narrowing achievement gaps between typical and ‘struggling’ learners
The budget, he said, is built to address those goals through:
- Ensuring the district has a strong curriculum in every area through systemic curriculum improvement
- Hiring “the very best teachers available”
- Providing those teachers with the very best professional training and support
- Providing “wraparound services and programming” to support students with special needs
- Providing infrastructure for the effective functioning of facilities and programs
Smith acknowledged he always keeps in mind what the community can support financially when he builds a budget. “We attempt to manage the inevitable tension between providing adequate funding, sustaining the momentum around continuous improvement, and keeping a bottom line in place that our taxpayers in this town will find acceptable.”
The district has worked hard over the last year to see differences in student achievement. Wilton Public Schools was the top performing district on Connecticut’s accountability index, and test scores were raised.
However, Smith said the district is also seriously challenged by an “alarming increase in the number of students in serious psychiatric distress.”
“The students come to school. And so it’s our obligation to respond to those students to ensure they have the supports necessary so they can learn and grow,” Smith said, adding that the high cost of outplacing students in “very accute psychiatric distress” has resulted in the district needing to freeze its budget at the start of the school year because of the high cost of those outplacements.
Smith said his building administrators initially came to him with more requests that didn’t make it into this year’s budgets, and that not only did he lower his initial proposed budget from a 5.99% increase to 4.75%; but had he included all of their requests it would have been a proposed 10% increase.
“Most of the reductions I took before this budget came before the board was around staff, including another administrator at Wilton High School, kindergarten paraprofessionals, and an additional math instructional coach at Cider Mill” along with three additional staff — a special educator, a school psychologist and a board-certified behavior analyst.
As for the numbers of why staff increased when enrollment decreased, Smith explained it was due to several reasons:
- While enrollment changes at the high school and the elementary schools directly impact the number of classroom teachers, because of the team base structure at Middlebrook, it’s harder to adjust staffing there
- Special education staffing is higher proportionally because of the “rising prevalence rate of Wilton’s special education population.” Smith said staff is added based on requirements dictated through IEP plans.
- The district has invested in areas of priorities, and shifted staffing accordingly. Those areas include the Library Learning Commons in each school, instructional coaches and intervention.
Smith shared how Wilton compares to other DRG districts in terms of student-to-staff ratios. [Editor’s note: Smith had figures available for board members that are not yet available online.]
SCHOOL ADMINISTRATORS SPED TEACHERS CLASSROOM TEACHERS LIBRARY/
Highest Middle Middle Lowest Lowest MIDDLEBROOK Highest Middle Middle Lowest Highest WILTON HIGH SCHOOL Second Highest Second Lowest Highest Lowest Lowest
Board of Finance Questions — and Smith’s Answers
Chris Stroup asked why Smith rejected some of the requests from the building administrators.
Smith told him that he’s sensitive to proposals that include adding new staff, primarily to keep budget expenditures low.
“Almost as a practice, I push back and ask them to find another way to manage the needs that they’re seeing. I’m also sensitive to putting forward a budget that is manageable and the initial increase was closer to 10%, so I just felt we couldn’t add those staff at this time,” Smith said.
When Stroup asked what Smith would do with an additional $1 million, Smith said he’d invest in staff. One specific example he gave of a proposal he’d consider is for a classroom and staff for a group of students with significant needs.
“We’re seeing a phenomenon now that we haven’t seen in a long time. We have kids at Cider Mill who are just really disregulated and not able to function well in that environment [who] are now subject to outplacement. We’d like to keep all of our kids here. So, [we’ve] talked about an opportunity to create a classroom with a board-certified behavior analyst and a special educator. Together they might be able to manage some of these students and keep them in our school and then deliver a good education. So that would be one area that I would invest in for sure,” Smith said.
When BOF member Rich Santosky pointed out that the district spends an average of $33,000 per special education student and $13,000 per mainstream student, and pointed out that the class Smith described would add to that difference on the special education side.
“I would [still] propose it, just as I described. If that’s how the average works out, that’s how it works out,” Smith told Santosky.
Kaelin asked what Smith would do if the BOF asked him to lower his proposed budget increase from 4.75% to 3.75%.
Smith said he’d consider cutting personnel — administrators, classroom teachers and instructional coaches. He’d also look at stipends, clubs and activities for reductions.
When it came to questions from the BOF about coaches, Smith said he supports being invested in the coaches, and he was backed up by Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Chuck Smith, who said, “That top of the state academic growth is primarily due to the work of our teachers, but also due to the support that they get from their instructional coaches.”
Matt Raimondi asked whether the $1.3 million that the coaches cost the district is a good investment, and how well the district has done with coaches compared to 10 years ago without them.
Smith said that the investment is “well worth it,” especially in the impact on early literacy and other achievement results in the district.
“We’ve had quite a bit of work to do supporting our staff to build their skills. But if you look at our recent data, we’re really gaining traction. If you look at general achievement measures, over the last year we’ve really hit on a model that makes a lot of sense. Talking again about our achievement on the Smarter Balance math scores, I think the investment is well worth it, because we’re performing at the top of our DRG in general,” Smith said.
The BOF members also asked about increasing mental health needs. Assistant Superintendent Andrea Leonardi explained that the mental health crisis is not just a Wilton problem but a national one, and it reaches back to before COVID.
“We’re seeing higher levels of anxiety and depression. We’re seeing higher levels of suicidal ideation, self harm, non-suicidal self harm, substance use,” she said.
Both Kevin Smith and Leonardi said that the problem is exacerbated because there’s a lack of adequate community resources for kids mental health services, and so much of the responsibility falls to the district. Stewart Koenigsberg questioned that.
“A broad presumption of mine is that there — incorrect perhaps — there are medical and psychiatric health that exist outside of the schools that should be listed. How is that managed and how is that differentiated from what you’re talking about in terms of meeting, potentially having more resources available, or having a need for more resources? How do you draw that fine line and is there a mechanism under which more can be referred out or more external psychiatric resources can be brought to bear?” he asked.
Smith explained that there’s a shortage of certified mental health professionals across the state and locally, and while it’s not the district’s job to provide long-term ongoing therapy to students, the schools still need to offer support while the child is in school and also help find resources outside.
Leonardi said that families of children with mental health issues are facing “a very heavy lift.”
“Those parents need a tremendous amount of support in order to stay the course so the child can grow and develop in a healthy way. That’s not as available when those issues come to school. Remember, school is mandatory. You can’t not go when those issues come to school and learning is impacted, those two issues become inextricably linked. And when the mental health of a child has a negative impact on their ability to learn, that drives disability identification, that drives special education. And that’s when the responsibility turns to the schools. That’s where we take over and we have to make, we have to work with the child and the family to develop the skills necessary to allow that child access to learning,” she said, adding, “That is the ramp for that child to be able to access learning. And that’s when it becomes our job.
Koenigsberg pointed out that while the proposed 4.75% budget increase is in line with other DRG districts (Darien at 4.9%, New Canaan 4.8% and Westport over 5%), the town’s student population has shrunk by 14% in the past 10 years — the highest rate in the DRG (Darien’s enrollment decline was only 1%).
He contrasted that with Wilton’s per-pupil spending coming in higher than most of the other DRG and surrounding towns, although acknowledging that the district is facing higher fixed costs, post-COVID challenges and special education costs that often exceed other towns.
“Westport residents on average earn two-thirds more, their adjusted gross income that’s two-thirds higher than average than Wilton [residents], so it comes down to affordability,” he said.
Koenigsberg referred to prior surveys of residents which he said indicated a public reluctance to approve a tax increase higher than 2%.
“I think all of us want to do our part in terms of contributing to success of the schools. But there’s some disconnect between those desires and how much people are willing to spend. Uh, you know, we have that 2022 survey with 454 residents. And I think we had a minority that wanted to spend more than we approved. So I think we do have those headwinds in terms of what the taxpayers would like to spend as opposed to what the views are on needs and desired educational outcomes. So we do have those challenges,” Koenigsberg said.
Smith responded that he needs to balance those concerns with the needs of the district. “
“It’s helpful to understand these kinds of comparisons. From my role, I put together a budget with my team that I think describes our needs, as you’ve heard described tonight. We make a lot of choices. I make a lot of choices, always with the question of affordability in mind. But it doesn’t alleviate the challenges that are in front of us, particularly this year,” Smith said.
In conclusion, the exchange between Koenigsberg and Smith highlights the challenges faced by the school district in balancing its budget while maintaining educational standards.