Notes from the Board Table: A collaborative effort that moves schools forward
Superintendent Kevin Smith presented his 2017-18 operating budget to the Board of Education last Thursday evening. It is the product of a collaborative effort between school officials, Board of Education members, and members of the Boards of Finance and Selectmen. Work on the budget began last June, and it addresses the town’s finances while continuing to move Wilton schools forward with innovative new courses and investments in 21st Century teaching tools.
Dr. Smith’s budget calls for a $0.00 (ZERO) spending increase over current levels.
Some major challenges:
- Early spring 2016. The state legislature notifies towns of plans to dramatically reduce Education Cost Sharing (ECS) funding. Wilton received $1.51 million the previous year.
- May 2016. Wilton voters approve the town’s 2016-17 operating budget, incorporating a 0.77% increase for schools (a number significantly lower than surrounding towns). The vote followed several public meetings where residents spoke passionately about the need to invest in our schools.
- Late spring 2016. Wilton is allotted $665,382 for the coming year. The news is a wakeup call that Wilton cannot count on Hartford funding in the future.
- Summer 2016. 2017-18 Board of Education budget development begins.
- August 2016. Board of Finance passes guidance calling for a 1.25% reduction in school spending next year.
- December 2016. Wilton is told its ECS funding will be cut an additional $201,560.
Dr. Smith and the budget development team respond by expanding their efforts to find savings and swiftly incorporate these guiding principles:
- No sacred cows. Everything is on the table. This included class size, staffing, the number of administrators in each school, the Middlebrook “team” and Cider Mill “neighborhood” structures, co-curriculars, athletics, technology, bus routes, school start times and even the possibility of reducing the number of buildings we use.
- Every penny must tie back to the district’s strategic plan and objectives.
The district’s budget, strategic plan and objectives are available on our website . I hope you take the time to review the documents to see where we are headed!
In the meantime, I draw your attention to a few final points:
Enrollment decline. Over the past three years we have seen an enrollment decline of just over 5%. Critical to note, where enrollment decline permitted, we have reduced grade level sections (primarily at M-D and CM) but for the most part the decline has been spread across all grade levels, making class section/staffing reductions unrealistic.
Staffing reductions. Over this same period the Board of Education has reduced staffing by 4.16% with certified staffing (staff requiring teaching certificates) being reduced by 1.75% and non-certified staff (all others) being reduced by 10.7%. There is a small vocal group in our community which continually charges that staffing levels have become bloated, despite declining enrollment. These charges are just not true. I should also note the way we deploy our certified staff has changed. We no longer “just” hire classroom teachers. Instead, certified staff is found in a number of important capacities: Interventionists, curriculum coaches and coordinators, for example.
Labor costs. As staffing and enrollment have decreased, labor costs continue to increase. This year our teacher contract with its modest increases calls for roughly $1 million in increased teacher salary spending. Investing in our teachers is essential to retain Wilton’s top quality educators.
Fixed costs. “Other” costs continue to increase as well, despite our continued efforts to find efficiencies. This includes professional services, contractual costs, transportation and supplies.
Special Education. You may recall that two years ago, the district commissioned the District Management Council to assess special education practices, and provide a report on strengths and weaknesses. The report offered many excellent ideas for improving efficiency, and now we are starting to see the benefits. Next year, for example, we expect to have fewer than 30 students outplaced, compared with 35 students included in this year’s budget. Students are outplaced — or educated outside of the Wilton schools — when a determination is made that our internal resources cannot adequately meet a student’s needs. We have taken steps to improve our internal capabilities so that more of our students can remain in our schools, which is preferable both for students and their families, and for the Wilton community.
At this point, the budget proposal is referred to as “the Superintendent’s budget,” as the Board of Education has yet to formally adopt the proposal. The budget will be the subject of Board of Education workshops and hearings in coming weeks, and I hope all community members will keep informed. A good place to start is by attending our next regular board meeting, which is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 26, at 7 p.m, in the Cider Mill Media Center (note location change).