The TASC List: No slippery slope

The most compelling curve describing any Wilton trend or direction today is the school enrollment projection for the next few years. Whether an individual or consensus depiction of the forecast for district students or the actual decline of that population as it is occurring today, this curve is inexorably bending downward. There is no argument on that score.

The important question we now face involves the extent to which our town can take advantage of this opportune moment in time to find and extract the elements of cost-effectiveness embedded in that trend — harness them immediately, and reduce the tax burden that has become burdensome and unsustainable.

What follows is a summarized approach to the extraction process. It has been presented over time to Wilton financial and education authorities. It has been understood. More recently, outside consultants have offered views and opinions. What’s needed is an agreement to take action. To build a strategic planning process that recognizes the budget realities of the enrollment drivers, the underlying variables that have caused student populations to fall — everywhere across America — and to responsibly demonstrate that the promise and potential of cost-effectiveness can be realized here, and now.

Here are some of the methods to derive benefit from the current district education situation. These factors lend themselves to rigorous analysis and detailed quantification. And we hope and expect that this work will be completed by the resources of the superintendent’s office and the Board of Education. They have every reason, and the clear responsibility, to perform this work. For the moment, we have summarized the outcomes of the approaches in rounded numbers for purposes of clarity. But be assured that the possible returns (i.e., savings and productivity gains) could easily be much greater.

For an approximately 2% yearly reduction in enrollment, which translates into 80 students in a 4,000-student district, one can expect an accompanying budget reduction, year over year, of $1.6 million on an $80-million total budget. Student seats are the primary driver of space, resource, curriculum, teaching, and support requirements. We might expect that same reduction to apply for the next three years. Not only would that put a lid on budget increases, so that yearly totals remain flat over the period, but it would provide the superintendent with the funding to underwrite new requirements, mandates, and unforeseen contingencies.

Next is the extent to which the district can recover and recapture the costs experienced when enrollments were climbing the curve as they did in the steep growth period in the late 1990s. That particular build-up cycle found one staff/administrative position created for every seven students added (about 100 staff for 700 students). Employing an average cost of such staff at about $80,000 and the student decline of 80 per annum, the recovery potential stands at more than $900,000.

Then there is the critical and prudent step of insisting upon continual productivity improvements across the entire school system, through organization changes like consolidation, integration, and streamlining operations. Every educational enterprise promises to achieve such ends. Few ever do. Now we can make that happen by terminating otherwise unproductive programs and projects that have reached end of life, against the background of the non-salary/benefit portion of an $80-million budget (at 20% of total) representing operational and organizational opportunities for about 10% of a $16-million target, or $1.6 million per year.  

We can couple these three sources totaling over $4 million of annual savings with last year’s commissioned study (the Opportunities Review of June 2015) that recommends certain activities to yield over $1.9 million of savings. For an aggregate downside potential on the order of $6 million. That’s not some slippery slope filled with fluff. It’s a path toward fiscal stability.

That level of savings will heighten taxpayer awareness. A strong community should encourage its responsible educational institution to take the necessary action to secure the returns, flatten the budget, and produce a self-sustaining, self-assuring, and fully participating future for all: students, schools, and citizens.

TASC stands for Toward A Stronger Community. Contact: The author welcomes inquiries on supporting details.