We’re a town where decisions are ultimately made by direct vote of the citizens themselves, especially at the Annual Town Meeting (ATM). However, the three major town boards, and especially the Board of Finance (BOF), control what is presented at that meeting. Therefore, it’s important that decision-making be fully transparent and that citizens have the opportunity to address well before the ATM, in direct open-mike dialogue with those town boards, the reasoning behind those decisions.
That’s not what has happened this year, and that’s very unfortunate because the ATM is not a good forum for addressing changes in town budgets. If the budget is voted down, it simply goes back to the BOF for more tender ministrations by that group of a half-dozen.
It’s one thing when the BOF is making minor tweaks to the budget before the ATM. It’s quite another thing when those changes are $1.1 million to the school budget (and proportionally the same to the town budget). The prelude to this process was the BOF announcing in the fall its guidelines for budget increases, a practice now in effect for multiple years. It’s a procedure that seems to work very well and allows for careful, well-considered planning by our Board of Education (BOE). The BOE budget came in, miraculously, well under that guideline, and we know we get top-flight results from our schools, money well-spent. So everyone then assumed it would be smooth sailing going from there to the ATM.
So everything seemed on course despite the specter of a $14-million state-driven town budget impact. When that specter was determined in reality to be a minimal risk by close contact with legislators who control the process in Hartford (and after huge blowback from towns all across our state), the BOF knew it could no longer hang its hat on that claim for making major budget revisions. Out of the blue though, we then heard that the town real property revaluation would adversely affect a portion of our town population, and that became, in the last few days before the BOF’s final decision on the budget, the rallying cry of those who sought to cut the BOE budget.
To try to justify making that million-dollar cut, the BOF suddenly focused on one account at our schools that has been there for years and relates to continuing education. Without deliberative discussion of how the BOE had factored those funds into plans for other uses (which were in the making well before these final BOF meetings) and without provision for public comment, the BOF latched onto that as its rationale for making the million-dollar cut.
So here we have two major new factors injected into the town budget discussions at the last minute (revaluation consequences and continuing-education reserve funds) with no opportunity for full discussion or for public engagement and comment. That’s not a good business model.
What is perhaps most troubling here is the consequence on loss of trust among our major town boards, especially BOE, as a result of this last-minute $1.1-million cut. That trust has blossomed beautifully in recent years and has been nurtured by thoughtful year-around inter-board interaction and liaison. Yet that trust has been dramatically broken for a modest overall result (roughly a 1% reduction in a town budget of c. $120 million), but one with a very dramatic effect on our education budget after so much careful thought has gone into crafting it with the BOF’s own guidelines firmly in mind — and even bettered. That’s not what could be remotely termed positive reinforcement!
Recent thinking on best decision-making underscores the role that trust plays in assuring achievement of optimal outcomes and not some dismally far-back second best in which each side hunkers down in distrustful me-first thinking. That’s the long-term risk that conduct like the BOF’s last week raises as a real danger for our town that far transcends a one percent town-budget move.
Even as Hands Off Our Schools’ war in Hartford has been conducted so successfully, it’s sadly being lost locally right here in Wilton. So Hands Off needs to focus its very powerful artillery now on Wilton’s own BOF to keep that board from being an agent for deterioration of our schools. And indeed all of us who care about our schools (including the 43 percent in the December 2018 statistically significant town survey who identified our education system as “the leading reason” for living here) need to do that, too.