Notes from the Board Table: Air quality, budget cuts

Dr. Richards began our April 10 BOE meeting with an update on the radon testing that took place at Miller-Driscoll in mid-February. “The laboratory analysis results for the radon air samples ranged from 0.3 picocuries per liter of air (pCi/L) to 1.7 pCi/L,” Dr. Richards said. “No results were even remotely close to the level of 4.0 pCi/L which is the level at which the EPA recommends corrective action.”

The radon testing was performed by a sub-contractor of the firm Cardno-ATC, and an accompanying report concluded: “No corrective actions need to be taken at this time.”

This is certainly good news — although not unexpected. We never had reason to believe there was a radon problem at Miller-Driscoll, but we are nonetheless pleased to have the updated results. The radon testing preceded a comprehensive indoor air quality assessment of Miller-Driscoll conducted during March. We expect those results later this month, and will make them available to the public via the Miller-Driscoll website.

Also coming later this month will be a revised operating budget for the 2014-15 school year. At its April 1 meeting the Board of Finance instructed us to reduce our budget request by $750,000. This will be no small undertaking. The budget we originally presented to the BOF included a 2.15% increase in general education, most of which was directly attributable to contractual increases. Our budget included an 8.78% increase in special education, directly attributable to mandated services; along with a 225% increase in security, resulting from Wilton Security Task Force recommendations.

Dr. Richards and his administrative team presented the board with a proposed pathway to achieving the required $750,000 in reductions. Among the proposals currently under consideration:

• $35, 100:  Reductions in athletic budget (two coaching positions plus supplies and equipment);

• $63, 370:  Reductions in textbooks and instructional supplies;

• $24,140:  Reduction of one WHS classroom teacher to 0.6FTE;

• $85,000:  Elimination of threat assessment coordinator position;

• $15,080:  Elimination of WHS bus run on testing days;

• $360,000:  Deferral of certain maintenance projects; savings from conversion of WHS to natural gas, elimination of certain security upgrades.

The remaining $167,000 in savings would come from retirements of senior-level staff members and the associated savings in health benefits.

Clearly each of these reductions is significant and would have an impact on the services we deliver to our students. For example, the additional WHS headcount was intended to address a “creeping” problem of larger class sizes. Reductions to the athletic budget could force some of our athletes to use equipment that is past its prime. Although we would never allow our students to use equipment that was unsafe, we are getting close to the point where our “nice to haves” are becoming “must haves.”

Elimination of the threat assessment coordinator will also be weighed very carefully. This position was recommended by the Wilton Security Task Force, and is intended to assist in the detection, assessment, and management of internal threats to the schools. The coordinator would work with the district’s threat assessment teams to assess and interpret student behaviors and actions of concern that may indicate the possibility of a threat. The administration believes this can be accomplished by providing training in “threat assessment protocols” to our existing team of mental health professionals and the two student resource officers. Dr. David Bernstein, a forensic psychologist with expertise in threat assessment, has provided training to staff and consulted on several cases at the high school. The board has asked for his guidance on this critical issue, and will exercise extreme caution on all security-related issues.

The board will spend the next two weeks reviewing options for spending reductions. We will meet April 24, at which time we will vote on a final spending plan. That budget will be presented at the May 6th town meeting.

Finally, some happy news.  A highlight for me as a board member has become the annual visit from officers of the high school’s “Top Inclusion Models” club. Top Inclusion is dedicated to breaking down barriers that can exist between students with disabilities and non-disabled students. Through Top Inclusion, WHS students reach out to their peers with the message that judging people and name-calling are “not OK,” and that simple acts of kindness should be the rule rather than the exception. Club leaders Greer Kaufman and Harry Copley shared examples of how the 200-plus club members are reaching out to Middlebrook and Cider Mill students, and about Ridgefield High’s interest in forming a similar club. Top Inclusion is something in which we can all take pride, and as we continue our budget deliberations, it can serve as a reminder of the amazing students we have in our community.