Notes from the Board Table: School budget needs public support
I wish I could tell you that the 2018-19 school operating budget, which our Board of Education unanimously approved last week, is full of exciting new programs and initiatives that will set our schools soaring and make us the envy of every community near and far. I wish I could tell you that, but in fact, the budget we approved is a modest spending plan that essentially maintains the status quo.
Our budget increases spending by 2.24% over current levels, and marks the fourth consecutive year of “lean budgeting.” But even at this rate — a 2.24% increase is by far the lowest of all surrounding communities including New Canaan, Darien, Ridgefield and Weston — we still face a strong challenge from the Board of Finance (BOF).
And that’s where the community comes in. We need members of our community who support the good work that’s going on in our schools, and who understand that any cuts to our budget will impact the quality of that work, to become engaged in the process and let the Board of Finance know how you feel.
Specifically, you can do that in four ways:
- Send the BOF a letter or email. You can use this email address to reach all board members: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Attend the BOF public hearing, which is scheduled for Monday, March 26, 7:30 p.m., at Middlebrook. Members of the public will have an opportunity to speak at the hearing, and communicate directly with BOF members.
- Attend the Annual Town Meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, May 1, 7:30 p.m., in the Clune Center. (I’ll dedicate future discussions to the need for a strong town meeting turnout, but suffice it to say, opponents of our budget can leverage the traditional low attendance to reduce our budget. Last year a motion was made at the meeting to reduce our budget by $1 million, and it almost succeeded.)
Over the next few weeks, the Board of Finance will continue to analyze our budget, along with all other economic factors impacting the town. The BOF’s job is to determine how much the town can afford, and to either approve our budget as it stands, or to reduce our bottom line. It’s an important job, and we know that our BOF colleagues understand the importance of our schools to the community, and the need to protect our town’s investment in our school system.
An important factor in the BOF’s deliberations will be input from the community. During our joint BOE/BOF meetings over the past few weeks, members of the Board of Finance made clear that public input will help guide them in their discussions, and that ultimately, our town’s budget is a reflection of residents’ desires. Up to this point, most feedback has been in opposition to our budget. Which is why it is so important for our “silent majority,” residents who do understand the need to invest in our schools, to step up.
Our budget already reflects the economic reality that has beset our community in recent years. Consider our four most recent budget requests:
2018-19: Proposed 2.24% increase.
2017-18: 0.0% increase.
2016-17: 0.77% increase.
2015-2016: 1.98% increase.
Despite these lean budgets, we have been able to deliver the high-quality teaching, curriculum and extra-curricular initiatives that our community values and expects. We did this by rooting out inefficiencies, eliminating waste and finding consolidations where possible. Just this year, for example, we consolidated our finance operations with the town’s, and are now jointly served by Chief Finance Officer Anne Kelly-Lenz. This allowed us to eliminate the school’s finance director position.
We are now at a point where additional spending reductions will affect programs. Superintendent Kevin Smith was asked during a recent meeting with the Board of Finance, how he would absorb any BOF-mandated spending reductions. Dr. Smith remarked that since our budget has already been carefully and repeatedly scrubbed for additional savings, any spending reductions will result in hard choices that will affect education in the Wilton schools.
In other words, we can no longer make minimal investments in our schools, and expect the high levels of academic achievement to which we have become accustomed. Good education is expensive, and we have to be willing to make the investment required to continue Wilton’s tradition of academic excellence.
I know our community is willing to make that investment. And I hope community members will understand the need to show support by emailing the Board of Finance, and attending our upcoming budget meetings.
Chair, Board of Education