The Thursday evening, Jan. 12 meeting of the Board of Education (BOE) will be the board members’ — and the public’s — first opportunity to hear Superintendent Kevin Smith‘s proposed budget for the 2023-24 school year.
It’s the first ‘official’ point in the town’s annual budget setting process leading up to formal presentations to the Board of Finance and eventually Wilton residents. However Smith has already indicated there will be tough decisions for FY2024 with expected teacher salary increases, rising utility costs and other drivers are expected to make this budget cycle a particularly “challenging” one.
Another key driver will be enrollement, which the BOE heard about during its Nov. 3 meeting, which featured the presentation by resident and longtime consultant to Wilton Schools, CPA Ellen Essman. Accurate numbers can help ensure everything from determining whether enough teachers are on staff to making sure school supplies are ordered in sufficient quantities, as well as planning larger expenditures like capital improvement.
Essman presented figures depicting both the current size of overall enrollment at Wilton schools and projected changes over the next several years based on data gathered from a variety of sources. According to Essman, the next several years will see a slight decrease in overall enrollment, but around 2027 she anticipates a net increase in enrollment numbers.
“I really want to point out that even though next year we’re looking at a smaller kindergarten of 224 students, we’re looking at 244 students for first grade,” Essman told the board. “If you go down to 2024 and 2025 we have this flip and that is because when I did a census this year for the three-year-olds there are quite a few in the census for the preschool classes.”
“There were classes that were starting to be overfilled and have waiting lists, so I think it’s important to mention that these children will be coming soon,” Essman added.
Essman explained that she oversees a census of pre-schools in Wilton and surrounding communities to determine likely numbers of incoming students. She also said she pays attention to the housing market and data which can indicate both the arrival and departure of families with school-age children across Wilton. Her latest data showed large incoming classes offset by some of the largest graduating classes that Wilton High School has seen in recent years.
Essman determined a “net migration” for upcoming years based on the assumption of everybody from the senior class of Wilton High School graduating, combined with the “cohort retention method” which averages out the rate at which students move between grades while accounting for students transferring in or out or being held back. Together with figures from the pre-school census to determine the size of incoming kindergarten classes, her data provided insight into the likely total number of students at Wilton schools in the coming years.
In 2022, Wilton Schools had 3,691 students at the time Essman compiled her data, and it is expected that the district will have 3,620 total students in 2023, 3,616 in 2024, 3,603 by 2025, and 3621 by 2026.
While her prediction extend out 10 years, Essman cautioned that predictions beyond three years become less reliable.
“It’s hard to predict when they haven’t been born yet,” Essman said of the potential variability of future birthrates.
However, Essman did factor a decline in birth rates into her projections, based on a trend reported by the Centers for Disease Control.
The BOE members only asked Essman for minor clarification as she explained her methodology.
“I think it’s a smart, conservative number to start with,” Smith said as Essman concluded her presentation.