Notes From the Board Table: Board urges public engagement in budget process
First, I would like to thank the five Wilton residents who showed up last Thursday night at Cider Mill to listen to Superintendent Kevin Smith present the proposed operating budget for the 2016-17 school year. Five. That’s not a typo.
It’s not my intent to preach here. I know we all have busy lives, and that for many, looking at the school budget is a “spring thing,” since the actual vote takes place in early May. I am also aware that many people were planning to watch the meeting either online, or on Channel 78 (unfortunately, we found out after the fact that the audio transmission of the meeting failed). But please humor me as I dwell on this for a moment, because I am concerned that the turnout at last week’s meeting may be a precursor for a low turnout when it is time to vote in May.
I would like to remind everyone that last year’s 1.98% budget increase was actually VOTED DOWN, but because of the way our Town Charter is written, it ultimately passed on a technicality. And what exactly was that technicality? Low voter turnout! The way the charter is written, if fewer than 15% of eligible voters turn out, the measure under consideration automatically passes. As last year’s Wilton Bulletin detailed, since fewer than 15% of voters turned out, the budget passed.
It is our job as your elected officials to develop budgets that YOU are going to approve. If we ask you for feedback and you don’t give it to us we are left to make what we believe are educated guesses or to rely on what little input we do receive.
Clearly that’s not an ideal situation, and something we would very much like to avoid happening again. Keep in mind — by failing to provide your feedback and failing to vote, you essentially empower individuals with opposing viewpoints. The majority of people who voted last year voted “No, too high,” meaning that had this group been able to garner a few more votes, our budget would have been defeated, and we would have been forced back to the drawing board to find serious spending reductions. Now this may have also been the will of the majority of town citizens as some claim but without your feedback and your vote we will never know. Personally I take your silence as a vote of confidence in the work we are doing but I also recognize and am not comfortable with the arrogance of that perspective. The bottom line is we need your feedback in order to do the best job we can for you. (BOE@wilton.k12.ct.us) and if you’re sending feedback to the Board of Finance about our budget, please copy us. We WANT to know what you are thinking.
This year, our proposed budget is a 1.27% increase over current levels, and 70 percent of that increase goes to contractual obligations such as teacher salaries, health insurance, transportation and energy costs (many of which are rising in excess of 2.25%
NOTE: Teachers salaries will increase by 2.48%, transportation will increases by 3.5%, but thankfully, energy costs are down. As Superintendent Smith said during last week’s meeting, there is no fat in this proposed budget. If we are forced to make reductions, cuts will be made in areas that impact the teaching and learning environment.
So please, I urge you to become engaged. Take a few minutes to review the budget, which is posted on the district website, and let us know your thoughts. The Board of Education wants public comment, and we take to heart every opinion that is offered.
Among the key provisions of this year’s proposed budget:
- Addition of “Introduction to Engineering Design” course at Wilton High School, which will begin our high school investment in nationally-recognized “Project Lead the Way” STEM instruction.
- Addition of Student Technology Help Desk course at Wilton High School.
- Addition of “math interventionist” positions at Cider Mill, Miller-Driscoll and Wilton High School to help improve our math scores (Middlebrook added a math interventionist last year).
- Continued investment in the “backbone” of our technology infrastructure, to ensure adequate bandwidth in our schools (which is a significant issue).
The budget also includes several examples where we have been able to reduce costs and find spending efficiencies:
- Net reduction in headcount by 6.65 — including two classroom teachers at Cider Mill, and 1.75 positions at the high school — as a result of a projected decline in enrollment.
- $186,000 savings in fuel costs directly attributable to our transition to natural gas.
- Containment of special education costs. Proposed 0.9% increase in special education funding represents significant progress in our efforts to manage costs through multiple initiatives launched this year.
The last time I remember a groundswell of public interest in the budget, was the year the Board toyed with eliminating freshmen athletics. I’d like to think we can motivate our parents to become engaged without having to propose something draconian to do so. But if opponents of this year’s budget are successful in voting it down — like they did last year — there’s no telling what our budget will look like.
The Board of Education will further review the budget during our next regular meeting, Thursday, Feb. 4 at 7 p.m. in the Wilton High School Professional Library. I hope to see you there, and if you choose to watch a broadcast of the meeting, please send us a note to let us know what you think.