Wilton Board of Education discusses budget cut

The Board of Education discussed the recent cut of $1.1 million to its budget at its meeting on April 11.

Chairwoman Christine Finkelstein said because of the magnitude of the cut a slower and more methodical approach would be the best way to proceed.

“In the week since the Board of Finance unexpectedly reduced the budget we had approved for the 2019-2020 school year, only one thing remains certain: $1.1 million is a lot of money,” Finkelstein said.

Previously a tentative date of April 25 was set to make a decision on cuts, but Finkelstein said it was best to hold off any hasty decisions.

Superintendent Kevin Smith said he and his administrators were reviewing programs, priorities and spending proposals.

“One of the first things we did in response to the budget reduction by the Board of Finance was input a freeze on this current year’s spending,” Smith said.

He and his team will review the accounts to then see what could be applied to next year’s proposal. Smith also addressed the continuing education account, which was brought up as a “reserve account” at the tri-board meeting on April 1.

“The account that was referred to is not a reserve account,” he said. “There are funds in that account. It has grown over more than a decade and there’s a sizable surplus. Historically that account has been used to reinvest in programs and facilities that are used by the continuing education program and also used by the schools.”

Smith said after analysis of the funds, officials learned the account had grown due to program expansion as well as the district covering other costs for the departments, including payroll fees and benefit contributions. He also took responsibility if the existence of the account surprised anyone.

“That’s on me,” Smith said. “I was not focused on those funds because we have a plan and we were focused almost singularly on managing our current accounts.”

Smith also addressed an opinion piece penned by Board of Finance member Peter Balderston. In the piece Balderston suggested the next contract negotiation with teachers may be a place to look for budget savings in teacher salary changes.

“I think those are terrible ideas,” Smith said. “Our teachers work very hard, and they live and work in lower Fairfield County, where the cost of living is not the same where you move up I-91 and 95.”

Board member Deborah Low agreed and said teachers were the heart of the district.

“To not respect stability, experience, expertise, excellence and passion is cutting at the core of our instruction,” Low said. “It starts with quality teachers, and we have got to absolutely invest, maintain, attract, keep them, steal them, kidnap them and make sure that they want to stay.”

Smith also clarified a report in the op-ed that lists Wilton as the town with the third-highest teacher salary in the state. In a salary analysis performed by the district which broke pay down by experience and more, Wilton is sixth or seventh out of nine schools, he said.

“What drives the average salary to be the third highest in the state is that 66 percent of our teachers are at or above the maximum step in the contract, which means they’ve been in the district at least more than 15 years,” he said. “We have a very veteran staff, and that’s a good thing.”

Smith said prioritizing the alternative school initiative was still very high, but he is concerned where the $1.1 million will be found. He also said he was concerned about where to make cuts without time to analyze how it will impact educational benefits.

“It’s dangerous to go back into an operating budget and to look at existing programs because the motivation is not based on an educational benefit, it’s based on finance,” Smith said. “That is the wrong calculus to make a decision like that.”

The next Board of Education meeting is April 25.

dj.simmons@hearstmediact.com

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