Wilton’s Board of Finance (BOF) met last evening (Tuesday, April 12) with the primary task of passing a resolution on the Board of Education‘s proposed FY2023 budget.
The BOF voted 4-2 in favor of the resolution that would appropriate $86,677,862 for the BOE budget. Board members Chris Stroup and Sandy Arkell voted in opposition.
That budget — if passed by voters at the May 3 Annual Town Meeting — would represent an overall budget increase of 2.21%, or $1,873,647, versus FY2022.
It was clear that in recent days, board members had felt the heat from many residents who either were unhappy that the BOF had not approved the full amount ($87.6 million) requested by the BOE or who had the misperception that the budget had actually been cut.
GOOD Morning Wilton will be reporting further about some of the public reaction and some ongoing disagreements within and across boards about how the budget process has unfolded. Below is our reporting on the key outcomes from the meeting.
Late in the Process
BOF Chair Michael Kaelin expressed some frustration that many upset residents did not seem to understand the lengthy budget process had been ongoing since late January.
“I’m aware, based upon all these emails that we’ve received in the last three or four days, that there are a lot of people out there that believe that we should have reconsidered tonight the [budget] amount that we voted on last Monday night,” he began. “What I’m not aware of is anything that anyone on the Board of Finance said that suggested that we would [reconsider] that tonight… I just don’t know where this idea came from.”
Kaelin then reviewed the many opportunities when the public could have learned about or commented on the budget proposals — a process which began on Jan. 25 with Wilton Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith‘s initial budget presentation, followed by the formal BOE budget adoption on Feb. 24, and a public hearing on March 23, among other occasions. (GMW‘s video, “Wilton 101: Wilton’s Annual Town Meeting, Budget and Taxes” also offered a primer.)
Kaelin also reiterated that the BOF made numerous public appeals for resident input from the very beginning of the process, and including a survey that was fielded in late March.
Kaelin urged residents to participate in the upcoming “How Wilton Works” forum, which will be held tonight (April 13). The event is co-sponsored by the Wilton League of Women Voters, the Wilton Library and GOOD Morning Wilton, and will be held in person, on Zoom, and live-streamed on GOOD Morning Wilton,
“If you want to know how things work in Wilton and what we do, that’s your opportunity,” Kaelin said. “If you’re upset about what has happened [with the BOE budget], then I urge you to learn, to educate yourselves about the school budget, and educate yourselves about this process.”
A Lower Increase, But “Fully Funded”
Kaelin specifically addressed residents who felt the BOF was undercutting the BOE.
“I can tell you that all [four] of us who voted for the [$86.7 million] budget fully believe that we are fully funding the schools,” Kaelin said.
“We’re recommending a budget be approved by the Town Meeting that’s almost $2 million more than the budget that was approved last year,” he emphasized.
Alluding to the fact that the BOF does not have line-item authority over the BOE budget, Kaelin went on to say he personally disagreed with the areas targeted for reductions outlined by Dr. Smith — which included a math interventionist, among other student-facing budget items.
“Having personally studied the budget, I do not believe that the Board of Education needs to cut any of the items that the superintendent announced last Thursday,” said Kaelin. “I don’t believe those items need to be cut. I could point to other places where you could get the money, but that’s not my job.”
“If the public doesn’t like the cuts that the Board of Ed is proposing, the recourse for the public is to communicate to the Board of Ed,” Kaelin said.
Like Kaelin, other BOF members made references later in the meeting to both the cuts Smith said would have to be made and also how the BOE budget is spent. BOF Vice Chair Stewart Koenigsberg and Matt Raimondi mentioned coaching and other areas in the budget that didn’t impact teachers and student learning that Smith and the BOE could cut instead. Rich Santosky suggested that there was enough in the increase to the BOE budget to accommodate “16 new math interventionists” if the BOE were to allocate its budget increase in that way. [Editor’s note: An editing error mischaracterized remarks Santosky made during the meeting; he did not suggest specific areas where spending could be reduced. We’ve updated the article to make the distinction.]
New Tactic for Funding WHS Elevator
The BOF took an unusual step to resolve the outstanding issue of how to fund an elevator at Wilton High School that needs repair this summer.
Keonigsberg introduced a discussion about a move to fund the $203,000 project from the BOF’s Discretionary Reserve (previously referred to as Charter Authority).
“We still have this item outstanding that requires renovation,” Koenigsberg said. “My understanding is that numbers have been vetted at $203,000. What I would like to do is to take that out of our reserve and make sure that the Board of Education has that available immediately.”
The funds would come from the FY2022 reserve.
Arkell questioned why the BOF would exercise such a tactic rather than fund the budget as requested by the BOE. She commented it was “odd” when there is “established history” about how such projects are expensed through the BOE budget.
Kaelin responded that it’s about “control” of the spending.
“Since the intent is that the money go to pay for the elevator, I want to pay it out of the reserve so that it’s restricted to that, rather than just adding that amount to the operating budget — which then goes out of the Board of Finance’s control and into the Board of Education control.”
Santosky, who supported the idea of using the reserves, called it a “win-win.”
“The elevator gets repaired, and the school budget in actuality doesn’t go up,” Santosky said. “In other words, we don’t see a 3% increase in the school budget because we added the elevator back in the budget. The budget increase is maintained low.”
He viewed it as “one-time funding” that would not become part of the budget baseline for the following year.
After discussion about timing and contingencies for budget overruns, the BOF unanimously passed the motion to use the reserves to cover the necessary elevator repair.
Bottom Line: The Mill Rate
With the BOE budget resolution and the decision to use the reserve funds for the WHS elevator, the mill rate calculation that will be presented to the Town is 28.2289.
BOE Chair Deborah Low attended the BOF meeting and spoke after the BOF’s decisions. [Editor’s Note: As Low began her comments, the meeting microphone was inadvertently muted. GMW reached out to Low who reiterated, as closely as she could recall, what she told the BOF.]
First, Low thanked the board and the public for their participation in the process.
“I thank everyone who is attending or listening tonight. I appreciate hearing everyone’s viewpoints. I also thank people for writing earlier emails and attending meetings and taking the survey. I think there has been a good amount of public participation,” Low said.
She specifically thanked the BOF for funding the elevator repair.
“I want to thank the BOF for finding a way to fund the WHS elevator that does not impact our BOE operating budget,” she said.
While expressing appreciation and respect for the BOF, Low has some concern about some “messaging” coming out of the BOF process.
“I think I speak for the whole Board of Education in expressing appreciation for your work,” Low said. “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.”
“In some comments tonight, it was implied that it would be simple to make reductions because there are either unnecessary or unpopular programs in the budget… I don’t think it’s helpful to toss program suggestions around because they appear unnecessary or unpopular to you. There’s a lot of thought and deliberation that goes into our programs.”
Low sought to end on a positive note.
“Thank you again for your deliberations and decisions about the elevator money.”