Notes from the Board Table: A call to arms for Wilton’s Annual Town Meeting

Earlier this week, the Board of Finance rejected the Board of Education’s request for a 1.35-percent spending increase for the 2019-2020 school year. The finance board’s action came as quite a surprise, since our request fell significantly below the 1.6-percent “guidance” that had previously been recommended. As difficult as it will be to absorb this reduction, which amounts to a $1.1 million cut to our budget, we could be in for an even bigger surprise, if subsequent cuts are approved at the May 7 town meeting.

Per the terms of our town charter, any registered voter can make a motion during the town meeting to reduce the Board of Education budget. For any amount. A simple majority of voters in attendance is all that’s needed to approve such a motion. Which is why it’s so important for voters who support our school budget to attend the town meeting, and be ready to oppose any floor motions.

Last year you may recall we were able to successfully defeat a motion to reduce the school budget by $1.3 million. And the year before that, we fought off proposals to cut the budget by $1 million and $1.04 million.

This year, given the continued uncertainty in Hartford, we have every reason to expect attempts to further reduce our budget. So please, mark your calendar and plan to protect our schools from any additional cuts.

With regard to the Board of Finance’s decision to reject our proposed 1.35-percent increase, I’d like to shed a little light on our recent budget history, and discuss our plans for moving forward.

The 2019-2020 operating budget we submitted marked our fifth consecutive lean budget. Here’s a look at our recent history:

  • 2019-2020 (as proposed): 1.35 percent.
  • 2018-2019: 1.62 percent.
  • 2017-2018: Zero.
  • 2016-2017: 0.77 percent.
  • 2015-2016: 1.98 percent.

This amounts to a five-year average increase of 1.14 percent. With this year’s increase reduced to zero, our five-year average drops to 0.87 percent. Less than one percent annually for the past five years. By way of comparison, our neighbors in Weston are set to vote on a 2.7-percent increase this year, Ridgefield’s budget is set to increase by 3.4 percent, and New Canaan’s by 1.86 percent.

In terms of per pupil spending, before last week’s reduction, Wilton’s rate of spending was sixth lowest within our “DRG” — or district reference group — which is the group of economically similar towns that Hartford uses for comparison purposes. Only Ridgefield (K-12) has a lower rate of per-pupil spending than Wilton.

I reference these comparisons, because Wilton residents need to understand that we choose not to invest in our school district at our own peril. You cannot run a top-notch school district without investing in the tools of 21st century education.

Each year, when I’ve had the honor of presenting the Board of Education budget at the Board of Finance’s public hearing, I’ve been proud to speak about the tremendous accolades awarded to the Wilton Public Schools. This year, for example, U.S. News and World Report ranks Wilton High School as one of the 10 best in Connecticut, and in the top one percent nationwide.

It really doesn’t get much better than that. But high honors like that don’t happen by accident. They are the result of a community’s sustained investment in its schools. By investing an average 0.87 percent in each of the past five years, we are endangering our best-in-class school system for short-term tax savings.

I hope residents will understand the seriousness of this situation. At last week’s “tri-board” meeting of the boards of education, finance and selectmen, I noted that we have passed the point where we can eliminate fat from our budget. We’re even past the muscle, and are now at the point of making cuts to the heart of the Wilton schools.

As we begin to assess how to absorb the $1.1 million cut to our budget, we do so under a cloud of uncertainty. Our proposed budget included several exciting new initiatives, including five new courses at Wilton High School, and a new alternative school option, which would allow us to service our most vulnerable students right here in Wilton. We also have existing programs that have become embedded in learning best practices, and extra-curricular opportunities that allow students to pursue their passions and talents.

The administration and Board of Education will carefully evaluate every line of our budget and find a way to eliminate $1.1 million. There will be no sacred cows, and there will be no winners.

I hope this provides a good overview of the challenges we face in absorbing this cut. But as significant as this reduction certainly is, we are highly aware of the threat of further reductions, should a motion at the town meeting succeed.

Please consider this a call to arms. If you care about our schools, and understand the need to prevent additional spending cuts, please mark your calendar for the May 7 town meeting.

Christine Finkelstein is chair of the Wilton Board of Education.

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