Notes from the Board Table: The budget won’t pass without your vote

Nothing is more important right now than convincing the Board of Finance about the negative implications of any cuts to the proposed 2016-17 operating budget for the Wilton Public Schools. Our proposed school budget includes a modest 1.27% increase in spending, which, considering a contractually mandated 3% increase in teacher salaries, means a bare-bones spending plan.

The Board of Finance will consider the education budget at a public hearing on Monday, March 28, at 7:30 p.m. in the Middlebrook auditorium. Several members of the finance board have already stated their inclination to reduce our budget. The only way we can prevent this is for members of the public to attend the hearing and speak up!

We are all well aware that voter apathy is a major problem in our town.  Low voter turnout — especially among parents of school-age children — is the reason the Miller-Driscoll building project passed by a mere 27 votes, and why last year’s school budget was voted down. We have got to do better.

In an effort to convince voters of the need to get involved in the process, I drafted a Letter to Wilton Residents, which I read during Thursday night’s Board of Education meeting. Following are some excerpts, which I hope will drive home the urgency of the situation, and convince you to mark your calendar for Monday, March 28, at 7:30 p.m., Middlebrook auditorium, for the public hearing, and for Tuesday, May 3, at 7:30 p.m., Middlebrook auditorium, for the Town Meeting.

“Over the past 21 years, the average number of Wiltonians who have shown up to participate in town government and vote has been 1,858 (out of a voter pool of approximately 11,000).

“On average, 642 of those voters vote against the budget every year. Last year, 688 voted against the budget, a level well within the realm of the average.

“Over the same period, on average, 1,216 residents voted for the budget.  But last year, only 602 of our citizens showed up to do so. Why? Do they hate the job we are doing? Do they dislike our schools? Do they think cuts should happen? Did they stay away so they didn’t have to cast a vote one way or another on a building project? I don’t think so, but I have no proof. I think they were busy and felt their participation wasn’t necessary.

“Fortunately, because of our Town Charter, anytime a budget is voted down when less than 15% of the voters show up it automatically passes — as it did last year. This is a not a good way to ‘win.’

“So what happens when the No’s win simply because the Yes’s don’t get out to vote?

“The most glaring effect has been an interpretation by both the Board of Finance and the Board of Selectmen that last year’s vote provided a mandate for reduced spending. I like lower taxes as much as the next person, but when our teachers’ contract alone increases by almost 3%, and we have inflation to deal with, a 1.27% budget request is already an amazing feat.

“Know this — unless we pack the Middlebrook auditorium with 2,000-plus people on both Monday, March 28, at 7:30 p.m. and again on Tuesday, May 3, at 7:30 p.m., the school budget will be cut by the Board of Finance (because they think ‘you’ want them to do so).

“Right now, at a minimum, the BOF would like us to come in with a zero budget increase or a flat budget (remember, we have a 3% increase mandated in our teachers’ contract) — that means we would have to cut $1,016,000.

“Where might that come from if voters don’t show up at Middlebrook on March 28 and May 3?

  • $240K in cuts to the math program.
  • $80K for a Miller-Driscoll teacher (increasing class sizes from 20.8 to 22.3).
  • $62K in cuts to the CM art program.
  • $146K in cuts to learning commons (library).
  • $175K in cuts to technology and support (slow networks will stay that way).
  • $97K in eliminating freshman athletics.
  • $51K in eliminating all co-curriculars at Cider Mill.
  • $54K in eliminating all co-curriculars at Middlebrook.
  • $161K in eliminating all co-curriculars at the high school.

$1,066K total (this doesn’t address the loss in revenues from participation fees).

“In reality the BOF would like to see the entire town budget flat (including bonding costs) so there are no tax increases, which would equate to a $2.5M cut. If we go to a theoretical $2.5M cut in the BOE budget, we need to seriously consider the following costs to the schools as a way to absorb the cuts while protecting reading, writing, math and science:

Total cost of all athletics (WHS): $1,166K

Total cost of music in the district:

MD                     $143K

CM                     $543K

MB                     $535K

HS                       $382K

Total           $1,603K

Total cost of art in the district:

MD                     $197K

CM                     $222K

MB                     $281K

HS                       $487K

Total           $1,189K

“These are ugly realities and it bothers me greatly that I have to share them with people to compel them to participate in their town government.

“But the reality is, if people don’t show up to participate, then the message they’ll be sending — at least as far as the Board of Finance is concerned — is they support spending cuts in these areas. …”

So there it is. I couldn’t be more direct. There is a lot at stake and we need every resident to weigh in. I hope to see you on March 28, 7:30 p.m. in the Middlebrook auditorium.

 

 

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  • Detlef Fuhrmann

    In today’s world, one has to look at everything on an international basis.
    In the last 30 years, the American education system fell from one of the best to number 47 in the world. Behind Europe, Asia and even 3rd world countries in Africa.
    Today, your students don’t know their knees from their elbows and academically, they are light years behind Asian, European and African students.
    This is not the students fault, but the fault of incompetence and lack of sense of reality in the school system administration, teachers and management, incl. the BOE.
    In no part of the world is that much money being spent for a school system in a small town like Wilton with declining student enrollment and mediocre results.
    Yes, the students here are better in sports than the rest of the world. But that and $ 2.75 gets them on the subway.
    That’s why it is sickening to see $ 81 million spent plus building a school that no one needs at this scale for an additional $ 50 million or so.
    The BOE and Mr. Smith should be given a fixed budget, which they have to live with.
    I think, for the next year, $ 70 million would be more than sufficient.

    • Kevin Hickey

      Detlef, great perspective. we better get on a fixed budget with this declining enrollment. this is getting a little crazy now…

      • Detlef Fuhrmann

        It needs to be quality before quantity; throwing good tax payer moneys after a bad system needs to stop!
        Our taxes are already too high because of this and will increase even more!

  • Thomas Paine Today

    So, Common Sense finds THESE area comparisons pointed: Examining Edu spending per resident, not per student. Q: Is Wilton “backing into” high spending with the wrong algorithm?

    At Bethel (Dr. Smith’s prior district) their 2016 proposed is $43.9mil budget, or $2,313 per 18,584 residents. At Ridgefield it is ’15 $86mil budget, or $3,440 per 25,000 residents. Wilton proposed is $81mil, or $5,400 per 15,000 residents.

    Dr. Smith: please explain how you lead a town of 18,584 residents District for $43mil, but your roll up to the Wilton BOE isn’t finding significant non-teacher cost cutting opportunities?

    BOE: please explain why a larger population town that Dr. Smith ran previously is almost half the cost per resident of Wilton. Please explain why Wilton’s costs are only 8% below Ridgefield’s while simultaneously being 60% below in population.

    BOF and BOE: It is high time that Wilton school’s reputation, fine as it is…is managed towards cost per resident. Why? Common Sense has to ask this: Why is the legacy model such that these area towns compete using cost per student metric? Does Wilton pick a peer cost per student number, then simply multiply by student population to get to its budget?

    The math vs. Bethel: Wilton residents are paying $2,100 (more than double in totals) than Bethel, per resident. Bethel has teachers, too. Wiltoners must be paying $2,100 per resident for many, many administrators not delivering lower classroom sizes.

    BOF – set us on a course of being fiscally competitive. Added benefit: we’ll be able to attract and pay the finest teachers instead of a mass of administratives.

    • Detlef Fuhrmann

      Well said!

  • Thomas Paine Today

    As usual, Detlef and Kevin are onto something and here’s how you start: Just using the cash compensation portion of a $50,000-pay, non-teaching admin position eliminated covers the cost of a 3% (contractual?) midpoint teacher salary’s annual raise for 20 teachers. [figure in 20-25% more for benefits cost savings and it might cover 25 teacher’s raises]

    This is scalable: 10 admin reductions covers 200 teachers – achieved from an average of 2 reductions across the aggregate (not each) 4 campuses and Super’s office.

    And guess what! With declining enrollment, the reductions in such admin staff in parallel suffers zero loss in teacher support. Staff roles follow the enrollment, but a head-start, down-payment type cut must be first.

    Teachers’ loads go down, too, when you cost-reduce elsewhere to keep their numbers up to maintain/meet lower class size goals.

    Want to really get efficient? Add a forensic accountant for $200,000/yr – which is just 0.002 of a $81mil budget – to uncover new ideas – as New Canaan is taking a hard look now, so can Wilton. Give him/her a three year contract to finish it up, less than the cost of coconut shells under the football field. Watch the budget get in great shape.

    Watch our teachers smile more with this fiscal security, and watch parents ask fewer and fewer questions and FOIAs. And we’ll all be singing:

    “Goodbye lawyer-brick road, where the dogs of society howl. Maybe you’ll get a replacement – There’s plenty of me to be found.” (Sir Elton John)

  • Kevin Hickey

    Vote this ridiculous BOE budget down….hard, actual facts from Alex Ruskevich…Actual chart on Wilton Politics page on Facebook (please join)

    After reading the BoE statements ignoring the need to control their portion of the budget, I decided to look into the current BoE proposed budget which I did not have last week. I have now become even more convinced that significant reductions can be made without sacrificing school quality.

    As a specific example I have chosen to review the MD staffing. The chart I have attached is an example of why I believe staffing has gotten out of control:

    · Last year’s and this year’s assumptions for Pre K project 78 students. This was not even close for last year but the projection is the same for this year’s budget. On the attachment you will find the data that shows currently a maximum of 28 FTE students, approximately 1/3 of what they are projecting. This difference should require significant reductions in staff which were not made.

    · Even without this over-staffing, the “Special Education and Struggling Students Opportunities Review” made the following observations:

    o Wilton has 4x the national average of psychologists, adjusted for enrollment (Page 21)

    o Compared to like districts Wilton has, 1.6x, 2.2x, and 2.0x the FTE of speech pathologists, OT and PT respectively (Page 28)

    The above over-staffing has also resulted in significant additional cost built into the MD renovation project. The Pre K numbers were used in the ed spec causing a design with more classrooms, offices and other facilities than needed.

    The above example covers the staffing in only in Miller-Driscoll and I would also expect over staffing in the other schools, though probably not as great.

    A last item, each boys Hockey player is now subsidized $3415 instead of $2682

    I appreciate the effort the BoF is making to try to reach a fiscally responsible budget.

  • Resi Dent

    WHERE’s THE CREATIVE SCHOOL MODEL? Let’s get creative and prudent with the schools. For instance: Other areas of the country have one principal covering multiple campuses, or one handling all 3rd-8th grades.

    Wilton has fully if not over-staffed offices on EACH of our four “campuses.” Absurd.

    Cider Mill and Middlebrook are walking distance apart….can’t we have ONE Principal covering both schools…with one admin staff supporting the Principal. One of every non-teaching staffer for 5 grades.

    Give Wilton student and parents ONE INTEGRATED guidance department, athletic staff, health team,..etc. for these prep grades heading into High School. It’s only five grades…and the buildings are maybe the close.

    WHS has four grades per non-teaching staffers, so why are we duplicating staffs for four grades at C/M and again for three grades at Middlebrook. WHY aren’t we using one of everything across the combined five grades of C/M and Middlebrook?

    Wake up Wilton. Restructure the basics. Keep great teachers. Keep programs.

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