Notes from the Board Table: Budget process is a ‘painful’ one

One of our board members came across a flyer from the 2003 budget season that discussed that year’s “bare bones” budget request for a 10% increase in spending. Ten percent! That amount was, the flyer pointed out, higher than the 7.3% increase that had been suggested by the Board of Finance.
Flash forward to 2017. Last week our Board of Education approved an operating budget for the 2017-18 school year that calls for a zero percent increase over current spending levels. Yet our budget still falls short of the guidance issued by the Board of Finance that we reduce spending by 1.25%.
Critical to note is we are asking for not a single penny more, despite the reality of increased teacher and staff salaries, increased health care costs, and the fact it will simply cost more to keep the lights on in the schools.
I think it’s worth pointing out, though, that although our board unanimously voted to approve the budget (with the exception of board member Glenn Hemmerle, who was not in attendance), each of us expressed deep-rooted concern about the consequences of enacting a budget that fails to invest in our schools. I think it’s widely accepted that the Wilton schools are the jewel of our community, and the number-one attraction for people considering a move to our town. By holding spending flat next year, there is concern within our board that we may be doing some real damage, especially as neighboring districts continue their steady patterns of school investment.
Consider the 2017-18 budget plans under consideration in some of our neighboring districts:

  • Darien — 4.5 % increase.

  • New Canaan — 2.67% increase.

  • Ridgefield — 3.48% percent.

  • Weston — 2.5% increase.

  • Wilton — 0% increase.

In the closing minutes of our discussion about the proposed budget, board member Chris Stroup asked Superintendent Kevin Smith what his priorities would be if he had an additional $1 million to spend. Superintendent Smith barely paused before saying he would refurbish floors in each of our schools — maintenance that has been deferred — invest in additional administrative oversight for special education at Wilton High School, and pursue an innovative technology solution developed by IBM that would help advance our individualized learning capabilities.
Mr. Stroup then made a motion to increase our budget by $800,000, and expressed his belief that most members of our community are willing to spend more to support our schools.
What followed was a spirited exchange that I think really sums up this year’s budget season. To a person, every member of our board would have loved to have added that $800,000 to our budget. But with our town’s current economic situation weighing heavily over our discussion, Mr. Stroup’s motion failed to pass.
Board member Laura Schwemm noted the “painful” situation the board finds itself in, and expressed concern that “this is not the year” to increase spending beyond the budget as presented. Chris Finkelstein said that “it would be a mistake to raise the budget at a time when we know there is pressure within the town to go even lower.”
But Lory Rothstein raised the point that I think is on everyone’s mind — the concern that our short-term solution of not investing in the schools will do long-term damage. “For this year it’s one thing, but going forward, I would hate to see the town place all the responsibility for the town’s fiscal woes on the back of the schools, when the schools are the best things the town has going for it,” she said.
Chris Stroup followed by suggesting, “I’m not sure we’re well served as a community, or not sure we’re serving well our students on a relative basis by increasing our spending at a rate that’s less than our surrounding towns.”
It’s important for residents to know how seriously the board takes its responsibility to our students, and how cognizant we are of the town’s economic situation. We believe the budget we passed will meet the needs of our students, and provide the funding needed to deliver an exceptional “Wiltonesque” education. But we won’t be able to move the ball forward in several key areas, which of course is a shame.
The budget process is far from complete, and we strongly suspect the Board of Finance will ask us to reduce spending beyond a 0% increase. We have heard very little from members of the public, which in the past the Board of Finance has interpreted as a silent show of approval for cuts to the education budget. I urge all community members to become engaged, and help us protect our town’s best asset, the Wilton Public Schools.