Notes from the Board Table: The budget won’t pass without your vote

Nothing is more important right now than convincing the Board of Finance about the negative implications of any cuts to the proposed 2016-17 operating budget for the Wilton Public Schools. Our proposed school budget includes a modest 1.27% increase in spending, which, considering a contractually mandated 3% increase in teacher salaries, means a bare-bones spending plan.

The Board of Finance will consider the education budget at a public hearing on Monday, March 28, at 7:30 p.m. in the Middlebrook auditorium. Several members of the finance board have already stated their inclination to reduce our budget. The only way we can prevent this is for members of the public to attend the hearing and speak up!

We are all well aware that voter apathy is a major problem in our town.  Low voter turnout — especially among parents of school-age children — is the reason the Miller-Driscoll building project passed by a mere 27 votes, and why last year’s school budget was voted down. We have got to do better.

In an effort to convince voters of the need to get involved in the process, I drafted a Letter to Wilton Residents, which I read during Thursday night’s Board of Education meeting. Following are some excerpts, which I hope will drive home the urgency of the situation, and convince you to mark your calendar for Monday, March 28, at 7:30 p.m., Middlebrook auditorium, for the public hearing, and for Tuesday, May 3, at 7:30 p.m., Middlebrook auditorium, for the Town Meeting.

“Over the past 21 years, the average number of Wiltonians who have shown up to participate in town government and vote has been 1,858 (out of a voter pool of approximately 11,000).

“On average, 642 of those voters vote against the budget every year. Last year, 688 voted against the budget, a level well within the realm of the average.

“Over the same period, on average, 1,216 residents voted for the budget.  But last year, only 602 of our citizens showed up to do so. Why? Do they hate the job we are doing? Do they dislike our schools? Do they think cuts should happen? Did they stay away so they didn’t have to cast a vote one way or another on a building project? I don’t think so, but I have no proof. I think they were busy and felt their participation wasn’t necessary.

“Fortunately, because of our Town Charter, anytime a budget is voted down when less than 15% of the voters show up it automatically passes — as it did last year. This is a not a good way to ‘win.’

“So what happens when the No’s win simply because the Yes’s don’t get out to vote?

“The most glaring effect has been an interpretation by both the Board of Finance and the Board of Selectmen that last year’s vote provided a mandate for reduced spending. I like lower taxes as much as the next person, but when our teachers’ contract alone increases by almost 3%, and we have inflation to deal with, a 1.27% budget request is already an amazing feat.

“Know this — unless we pack the Middlebrook auditorium with 2,000-plus people on both Monday, March 28, at 7:30 p.m. and again on Tuesday, May 3, at 7:30 p.m., the school budget will be cut by the Board of Finance (because they think ‘you’ want them to do so).

“Right now, at a minimum, the BOF would like us to come in with a zero budget increase or a flat budget (remember, we have a 3% increase mandated in our teachers’ contract) — that means we would have to cut $1,016,000.

“Where might that come from if voters don’t show up at Middlebrook on March 28 and May 3?

  • $240K in cuts to the math program.

  • $80K for a Miller-Driscoll teacher (increasing class sizes from 20.8 to 22.3).

  • $62K in cuts to the CM art program.

  • $146K in cuts to learning commons (library).

  • $175K in cuts to technology and support (slow networks will stay that way).

  • $97K in eliminating freshman athletics.

  • $51K in eliminating all co-curriculars at Cider Mill.

  • $54K in eliminating all co-curriculars at Middlebrook.

  • $161K in eliminating all co-curriculars at the high school.

$1,066K total (this doesn’t address the loss in revenues from participation fees).

“In reality the BOF would like to see the entire town budget flat (including bonding costs) so there are no tax increases, which would equate to a $2.5M cut. If we go to a theoretical $2.5M cut in the BOE budget, we need to seriously consider the following costs to the schools as a way to absorb the cuts while protecting reading, writing, math and science:

Total cost of all athletics (WHS): $1,166K

Total cost of music in the district:

MD                     $143K

CM                     $543K

MB                     $535K

HS                       $382K

Total           $1,603K

Total cost of art in the district:

MD                     $197K

CM                     $222K

MB                     $281K

HS                       $487K

Total           $1,189K

“These are ugly realities and it bothers me greatly that I have to share them with people to compel them to participate in their town government.

“But the reality is, if people don’t show up to participate, then the message they’ll be sending — at least as far as the Board of Finance is concerned — is they support spending cuts in these areas. …”

So there it is. I couldn’t be more direct. There is a lot at stake and we need every resident to weigh in. I hope to see you on March 28, 7:30 p.m. in the Middlebrook auditorium.