A View From Glen Hill: Political shrewdness needed

Now the serious political maneuvering begins. I’m talking not about the conventions this summer but instead about our Annual Town Meeting (ATM) on Tuesday, May 3, at 7:30 p.m. in the Clune Center auditorium. We all absolutely must be there that night!

Hopefully, the same folks who filled Middlebrook auditorium to overflowing last month to support the school budget (as it was before the Board of Finance cut $400,000), and the many others of like mind, will now actually vote. But ballot-box voting on Saturday, May 7th isn’t enough: We all need to be politically savvy “operatives” and show up at the meeting itself on May 3 to be sure those who oppose even the whacked-down budget can’t pass a resolution to lower the budget.  

Our Town Charter permits resolutions at the ATM to lower the budget but does not allow resolutions to raise it. If a budget-whacking motion carries by vote of those physically present at the Tuesday-evening meeting, that is what gets voted on, with not even the whacked-down BoF version of the school budget remaining.

The only way to prevent that further whacked-down result is to be there on Tuesday evening, May 3, to vote against it. Those who oppose the school budget want to cut as much as they can get away with. The sad truth is, however, that a great school district once destroyed is very hard to rebuild.  

The latest issue of uncertainty is what the state may do with its $1.5-million Educational Cost-Sharing (ECS) grant given annually to Wilton. That uncertainty is likely to remain even beyond the ATM night as the state legislative process grinds away. The budget as approved by the BoF already includes an assumption of a reduction of $250,000 in the ECS from the prior year’s $1.5 million figure. One can hope that legislative compromise will restore some of the state ECS grant, but the governor’s current proposal is to eliminate this $1.5 million grant entirely.  

That $1.5 million minus the $250,000 (assumed cut) already built into the budget leaves a gap that can be no larger than $1.25 million. It so happens that the reserve already built into the budget (the so-called “Charter Authority”) is $1.25 million, exactly the same amount. If the state zeroes the ECS out and something adverse should also happen in other areas of our town’s finances, the result could be a budget deficit (if other budget areas are not offsettingly underspent or overearned) which would reduce our town’s undesignated Fund Balance account — our town’s “retained earnings” from past years’ surpluses.  

The good news there is that our town’s estimated undesignated Fund Balance (at $14.1 million) is $1.5 million more than the 10% needed to preserve our town’s highly important AAA bond rating. So our town actually has in its undesignated funds beyond that 10% another implicit reserve of $1.5 million that can backstop the explicit reserve of the Charter Authority.  All of this confirms that there is absolutely no reason for any change to be made in the budget by virtue of what the state might or might not do with respect to its ECS funding level.

I strongly hope the BoF and BoE will do what each has now committed: undertake a process of meetings this spring and onwards for serious long-range planning. These boards have much to offer each other and can work together to achieve a comprehensive long-range plan that avoids every-spring brinksmanship. The more the BoF knows — if past experience with fiscally conservative folks who came on the BoE and, once there and understanding the realities, changed their perspective — the more both boards are likely to be able to work together for the benefit of our entire community.

If the budget naysayers checked out the day-to-day workings of our schools, they’d see the extraordinary things happening there by dedicated and talented teachers who give their hearts as well as their intellects to our kids (as we heard from almost all of the Middlebrook-meeting speakers) and the administrators who strive equally hard and well to make this remarkably complex and well-functioning education system that Wilton is blessed to have, work.

But those naysayers aren’t changing their minds. The way to reflect the political will of our town is to do the obvious: vote yes for sure (a successful “no too low” vote sends the budget back to the BoF that cut it already), but also be there at the Clune on Tuesday evening, May 3, at 7:30 p.m. to make sure no budget-whacking resolution passes on the floor of the ATM.