A View from Glen Hill: Saving education in Wilton

April 11th saw the culmination of an outstanding town-wide program on the critically important subject of Holocaust study and remembrance. This innovative Wilton Reads program reflects the brilliance of the whole-community focus of our Wilton Library and Wilton schools. The Wilton Reads program has brought to our library and schools multiple moving presentations of music and art as well as of the spoken and written word. It concluded on April 11 with Heather Morris’ compelling presentation on her book, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, before a huge audience that filled the library’s entire center transoms.
This multi-faceted Wilton Reads program should have national recognition as a model for how whole communities work together towards a common objective of education and action. It comes as no surprise that the engine for doing that in Wilton is the vision of our library and our schools working in close coordination and in multiple dimensions. Together they drew us all into a deeper understanding of a time that we must never forget.
Our schools and library have major roles in building and supporting community in our town. Having attended multiple hearings in Hartford in which members of Wilton-led Hands Off Our Schools have spoken with power and great heart about what the excellence of our schools means to all of us, I’ve seen firsthand how strongly and widely those views are held. They are similarly reflected in the statistically significant town-wide survey of five months ago in which 43 percent of respondents identified our education system as “the leading reason” for living here — over three times the next highest reason given by respondents.
Now we face an Annual Town Meeting at which a last-minute budget reduction is on the table. That reduction was engineered in a non-public caucus of four of the six members of the Board of Finance (BOF) all of one party, who came up with a $1.1-million reduction to our school budget. They did so notwithstanding that the budget as presented was already well under the guidelines the BOF itself had set for the Board of Education (BOE)’s budget. While political parties are permitted these nonpublic board-member caucuses under state FOIA rules, they run contrary to a system that favors transparency in decision-making and in which public feedback before the Annual Town Meeting is crucial to the process of good decision-making. It’s a bad mistake to change the playing field so radically on the day of the final BOF decision. The spirit of inter-board trust is a sad casualty of recent BOF last-minute and ill-advised action.
Contrast that with a highly productive meeting on Feb. 14 between the BOE and the BOF during which the BOE presented its detailed written answers to the BOF’s numerous key education-related questions. The spirit of this meeting was one of admirable cooperation towards a common goal with the understandable give and take of different viewpoints honored and used to advance the discussion.
Subjects discussed were as diverse as the advantages of offering a broader range of special-needs programs in-house through an alternative school program, as compared with the costs of protracted arbitration processes for parental claims to entitlement to different programs than our schools now offer and highly expensive out-of-district student placements. Fortunately, as of the time of the submission of this column, the BOF has been working with the BOE and BOS to address the $450,000 funding of this alternative school program for the coming year through use of part of our town’s Charter Authority — which is a reserve over and above the accumulated town reserves that protect our Aaa bond rating. This is good thinking to advance a promising program that can significantly reduce school costs. The program is illustrative of the excellent projects that can fall by the wayside with a million-dollar school budget cut.
In fact though, even with that potential $450,000 restoration, the further last-minute BOS decision to take $400,000 of school rug replacement costs out of town bonding means that available school funding is still down by $1 million ($1.1 million - $450,000 + $400,000).
Those who care about our schools need to be at the Annual Town Meeting in person to vote down any further attempts at budget reduction — as will surely be made by those few faithful attenders for whom no school budget number is too low. Sadly, we’re left with no choice but to vote in favor of the budget given the alternative of more BOF review — and we know where that leads.