Editor’s note: Watch our entire video or scroll down and read our synopsis and important points, including key video excerpts.
At last night’s presentation to the public of his FY’21 budget proposal, Wilton Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Smith made the first show of many that he’ll give in the weeks to come in his effort to get his 2.58% budget increase passed for the 2020-21 school year.
In dollars, Smith’s proposed budget for FY2021 is $83,989,144, which represents a $2,112,581 or 2.58% increase over current year spending.
In front of a very sparse crowd in which members of the Board of Education, Board of Finance and school administrators outnumbered members of the public, Smith made the case for why he is asking for his increase.
It was, he said, a budget for which “…a great deal of thought time and effort went into crafting this proposal.”
Smith made some key points at the start:
- The budget proposal didn’t start at a 2.58% increase. School administrators identified needs, which were compared to one another and to district priorities, as well as to “past history and budget performance” and weigh those in light of external economic factors.
- “Decisions are made about what must stay, what must be deferred or eliminated.”
- “This budget reflects a proposed appropriation and staffing request that we believe will enable us to successfully address our goals, advance our vision and meet our obligations.”
Smith started with a video from a “60 Minutes” story showing a technological advance featuring a researcher wearing a skull-embedded portable headset computer. The line in the video he focused on and repeated to the crowd was, “We have the technology to carry the entire internet in our heads.”
If that’s the future of technology, Smith asked, “What does that mean for public education?”
What drives the budget, says Smith, is the school district’s mission: “… to inspire and prepare all students to contribute meaningfully to a globally interdependent society guided by expert instruction and a rigorous learner centered curriculum. Our students actively pursue their goals and aspirations and grow to be productive, resourceful members of the community.”
Everything in the budget is geared to “… executing our theories of action in delivering on our strategic objectives.”
- Match approach to teaching to demands of the 21st century
- Ensure that all students feel safe and connected in the school environments.
- Allow all learners across the entire spectrum to access a rigorous education
- Make sure teachers are as best prepared, and as supportive as possible
- Student achievement–academic and other–matches aspirations
- Develop 20th Century skills.
- In addition to having broad knowledge, students must be able to effectively acquire, engage, interpret and communicate. To support this, the district has invested significantly developing curriculum and resources through the Library Learning Commons, where students now engage beyond “traditional library media curriculum” (literature, appreciation and research). Students now engage in transdisciplinary learning, design thinking, coding, and collaborative problem solving around real world issues.
Budget Goals and Assumptions
The BOE approved a series of goals and assumptions developed by administrators.
Goals: organized around “targeting investments”
- investing in the Genesis Alternative School program
- in updating the Middlebrook facility
- maintaining class size guidelines
- supporting digital learning plan
- honor our contracted increases in salaries and transportation
- budget for other increases such as medical liability, insurance and OPEB
- forecasted K-12 enrollment decline of approximately 54 students
- Several new courses aligned with mission and vision, including American sign language, advanced media production, and UConn ECE German and Advanced Spanish Conversation, among others.
- Continue ongoing work around strengthening mathematics program
- Supporting comprehensive literacy program
Budget Spending Distribution–Where $$ are Spent
Where money gets spent “remains relatively unchanged year over year,” says Smith.
- Salaries, benefits and insurance represent approximately 80%
- Contracted services–which include (legal and bank fees, Medicaid, transportation and technology leases)–account for 10.89%
- Property services, including carting, remodeling and major repairs and equipment and other repairs represents 1.6% of the budget
- Other purchased services, includes transportation costs, tuition, recruitment activities and training and conferences, accounts for 3.77%
- Supplies and digital resources (textbooks, general supplies, digital resources, and cleaning and maintenance supplies) make up the remaining 2.42%
At another point in the presentation, Smith underscored how the majority of spending is tied to personnel that educate the students.
“We are a human service industry and our budget very clearly reflects that,” he said.
Smith pointed out a year-over-year increase in salaries of about $646,000, and a year-over-year increase in insurance and benefits of about $300,000.
Genesis Alternative School
Smith drew attention to the impact that funding for the Genesis program has on his proposed budget. Because in the current year, Genesis was funded through an appropriation from the Board of Finance through the charter authority, it’s not part of the current year’s budget.
As a result, he said it makes a difference when comparing the increase he’s requesting for next year’s budget.
“If we add the Genesis appropriation to the [current year’s] operating budget and then compare it to the proposed [FY’21] budget, we see an increase at 1.99%.”
Comparing the current year’s [FY’20] budget without the Genesis cost to Smith’s proposed budget for FY’21 is what makes the increase 2.58%.
Funding Genesis is one of the district’s primary priorities this year, at a cost of almost $600,000. The program’s purpose is to provide an educational opportunity for those students who, for a variety of reasons, are unable to be successful in mainstream programs. Before the program, the district sent students to costly outplacements.
This year, the program started with four staff and seven students. Since just September, the student population in Genesis increased to 16, and Smith said it’s very possible 20 will be enrolled by year-end.
Smith called the program a win, both from an education standpoint and a financial one.
“First, it allows us to provide a high quality education to our students and keep them in the community. Next, it’s a very cost effective solution relative to outplacement. ….Of the current students enrolled, two have returned from outplacement–that represents actual budget savings and we approximate that five others have avoided likely outplacement–while that doesn’t represent savings, it does represent a potential cost avoidance.”
Cost Containment is something the district has worked hard to do with Genesis and Community Steps. Examples in the current budget that Smith pointed to where costs continue to go down were out-of-district tuition and out-of-district transportation.
“For this budget we’re forecasting a reduction of about $300,000 in out-of-district tuition and an additional net savings in transportation of about $53,000.” Although out of district transportation has gone down, there’s been a resulting increase in in-district transportation because the district is keeping kids in town, and transporting them to Genesis. That, says Smith, is “very, very good news and early evidence of the commitment that was made around Genesis.”
In addition to cost, Smith pointed to the social, and emotional benefit of Genesis.
“We don’t yet have academic achievement data, but what we do have is attendance data. From the very start our Genesis kids have upwards of a 90% attendance rate and these are students who had a lot of difficulty coming to school. So we’ve taken students who couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t come to school, had a lot of difficulty, to providing a program where they now come virtually every single day. So that in and of itself is a win.”
For FY’21, Smith is projecting a total district enrollment of 3,860 students.
- 3,716 in K-12
- 70 in preschool
- 10 in Community Steps 18-21 transition program
- 20 outplaced students
Smith acknowledged that enrollment projections for the next seven years suggest a continued decline of approximately 9.7% through 2027. [Note: the slide below forecasts K-12 enrollment only.]
Another trend within the enrollment pattern that Smith says the district continues to watch is some growth annually after students begin kindergarten. “We’re projecting some lower cohorts starting in kindergarten, but we add students as they move through eighth grade. And then we see tapering again as students move through high school. So that’s a trend that we need to watch.”
Smith says that across the entire district he is projecting stable class sizes year over year.
Miller-Driscoll: Class sizes are projected to range from 19-21 for grades K-2 (with enrollment projected to increase by 19 students over FY’20).
Cider Mill: Class sizes will range from 20-22 (with enrollment projected to decrease by 54 students over FY’20).
Middlebrook: Class size will range from 20-22 (with enrollment projected to decrease by 21 students over FY’20).
Wilton High School: Core class size will range from 20-22 (with enrollment projected to increase by 2 students over FY’20).
Special Programs (Includes Pre-K, Community Steps and Genesis programs): Smith noted that students age into pre-K where they turn 3 years old, so the fall often starts with a lower enrollment and enrollment rises as the year unfolds as students age into the program. “Historically we’d end up with somewhere near 80 students enrolled by the end of June,” Smith added.
Total Staffing Across District
Smith is anticipating a net decline of 0.95 FTE–a decline of about one employee. He pointed out that the district will also “redistribute staff,” focusing attention in special education.
“We are proposing to add certified special educators while decreasing non-certified staff. We’re proposing adding certified staff to respond to the increasing prevalence rate, manage special education case loads, and provide more targeted instruction aimed at narrowing the achievement gap between general education students and special education students,” Smith said.
Note at the bottom of the slide above, because of the enrollment decline, Smith said the district is forecasting losing two general education classrooms at Cider Mill–one third grade and one fifth grade–something he said will not impact overall class size.
Smith said that the district “continue[s] to trend downward in our staffing, although it’s not at the same pace as the enrollment decline.” He cited the reasons for this as a decision to “reinvest staffing over the last several years into various programs that support our goals and priorities around improving achievement, developing 21st century skills and narrowing the achievement gap.” That includes “staffing investments” in the Library Learning Commons and special education services.
Smith said that since 2015, the district has decreased the number of employees by 16.41 FTE.
Middlebrook Site Improvement Plan
One of the district’s major funding priorities this year is what Smith called “phase one” of a Middlebrook School Improvement Plan, similar to what was done at Cider Mill last year. Included in the plan replacing all of the flooring with VCT tile, updating lighting, replacing ceiling tiles and paint. Bathrooms near the auditorium will be renovated, and heating units will be replaced. The total cost of the project’s phase one is $530,000.
Smith forecasts a slight increase in utilities (under $10,000), primarily from an increase in telephone costs. There is good news for savings in energy, thanks to the town’s participation in a virtual net metering program, scheduled to come on line this week. In the first year, there should be a savings of about $100,000 as a result of diversion to solar energy.
Transportation costs will increase about $183,000.
Property Maintenance and Improvements increases are driven primarily by the Middlebrook Improvement Plan. The remainder is from facility maintenance projects across the district as well as service contracts to support rooftop equipment and security systems.
There are “substantial increases” according to Smith in Instructional Supplies and Digital Resources. He attributes this to new digital resources and annual cost increases, as well as supplies for art, music and athletics–the latter showing “substantial increases” year-to-year.
Technology is another area of “significant…sizeable investment,” according to Smith. This includes the technology lease used to fund the Chromebooks, replace SmartBoards and upgrade services. This also funds the company that provides all backend IT support.
Outcomes from Investment in Education
Smith directly ties investing in education to district outcomes. “As a result of our investments, we improve achievement, we improve opportunities and we continuously improve as a district.”
- high school graduation rate is just about 99%
- college enrollment rate is 93%
- college persistence rate (from freshman to sophomore year) is 99%
- college graduation rate is 84%, “which is well above the national average of 60%”
Academic Achievement: Smith was proud of student performance and achievement.
- “In 2019 89% of our AP test takers scored a three or better making them eligible for college credit.
- “Similarly, our students performed very strongly on the ACT. The last two years represented five-year highs for the composite scores at 27.1.
- “When we look at the Smarter Balance, of their measure of academic progress, which is our district benchmark, we see very encouraging news all across the district in [English Language Arts].
- “We have bemoaned some of our math scores in recent years, but when we look at the trends, we see that the trends are very promising and we are seeing annually some new high scores when we get that data.”
Achievement in Athletics & Performance: Smith said Wilton students also perform very, very well on the stage, in the television production studio and on the athletic fields. “Our musicians annually come home with first-place accolades, …In 2019, Wilton was recognized again as a best community for music education and we have a very long list of individual student accomplishments in terms of athletics. We routinely get ranked very high compared to our neighbors and around the state. Um, we have all kinds of niche programs including our television production program, which has been earning all kinds of accolades. The list goes on and on.”
Spending Comparisons vs. DRG
How does Wilton compare in education spending to its neighbors? Although the starting points, past years’ increases and spending priorities aren’t explored, Smith presented the differences in budget increases for FY’21 across the DRG.
According to Smith, “This is the first year in several years that New Canaan came in with a lower proposed budget than [Wilton] did at 1.47%. But Darien, Ridgefield, Weston, and Westport all started at much higher levels than we have.”
He also tracked comparative per pupil expenditures. “For years we’ve only trailed Ridgefield in terms of our annual per pupil spending and it’s a story that’s been in place for some time and continues to remain in place,” Smith said.
Smith looked back over four years, and found only one year where Darien spent less per pupil–by only $20–than Wilton.
He also noted that in tracking the overall percent increase in per-pupil expenditures over the last several years, “Wilton is far and away the lowest in terms of the overall increase.”
The Board of Education will continue to deliberate the budget, and will work with the Board of Finance (Feb. 6) until the BOE votes on the budget on Feb. 20. The Board of Finance public hearing not he budget is scheduled for March 30.