View from Glen Hill: Our schools, our future
Once again we must decide how much to spend on education. It’s a big responsibility, and under our Town Charter, the final decision rests with us.
The Annual Town Meeting is next Tuesday, and it’s really important that we be there in force to address motions that may be made from the floor and in general to express our opinion — and then to do so again where it really counts: at the ballot box.
While the final budget-approval decision is ours, the decision as to what will be voted upon has already been made (absent successful motions from the floor of the Meeting) by the six-member Board of Finance. We vote either to approve their proposed budget, or to disapprove it as too high or too low. The problem is that even if “too low” prevails, we go back to the tender mercies of that same Board of Finance to redetermine the budget for our revote. So the (sadly) savvy course of action even for those of us who think the education budget is too low is nevertheless to vote in favor of it for fear that something worse will materialize if redetermination occurs.
Special education funding accounts for 21.5% of our education budget under very strict, but largely unfunded, federal and state mandates. One of the big canards (this year, as last) has been claims that much can be saved immediately by implementing the recommendations of consulting group DMC presented in its 2015 report on special education in Wilton’s schools. Those savings canards were laid to rest recently — with four Board of Finance members in attendance — at a Board of Education meeting in which the president of DMC laid out the facts in stark and simple terms, as Board of Education Chair Christine Finkelstein described in her excellent “Notes” column in this newspaper last week.
DMC President Nate Levenson explained that the language DMC used in its Wilton report has since been determined by DMC itself to be flawed, and later DMC reports on the same subject for other school districts have taken a different approach. DMC’s president underscored that (a) the approach and timing being followed by Wilton’s school administration in implementing DMC’s recommendations are the correct way to go, and (b) the DMC report should have made it more clear that this process needs to be implemented incrementally over time.
As DMC’s president underscored in his remarks: to name just one of multiple adverse results, going faster would invite expensive-to-Wilton litigation that our town would almost certainly lose under those federal and state mandates and the rules and requirements they impose. Unfortunately, this revealing DMC presentation occurred after the Board of Finance had already acted with respect to our town’s education budget.
In fact, it’s easy glibly to assert that savings can be readily achieved when one doesn’t work on the education firing line or one isn’t the parent of a child with special needs, and it’s easy to forget that litigation is wasteful to all and especially so when the outcome is heavily parent-and-child weighted under the law.
When I hear self-proclaimed successful business people propound that they could run our school district better than our education professionals and our Board of Education members with years of experience in the education field, I have to chuckle — though with a grimace. I could ask them, “Do you take every input that comes to you from your vendors?” I have no doubt their answer would be, “No, of course not. We only take ones that meet our specs.” That’s not the model for public education. Our schools rightfully and by legal requirement take all. And they do so while running very lean. As but one example, the superintendent’s office that oversees an over $80-million budget does so with a half-dozen senior staff, two of whom (finance and facilities) are shared with our town government and one (digital learning) with other school districts; the administrative staffs in our individual schools are similarly very lean.
As cutting-edge ASML ramps up the number of its highly skilled scientists, engineers and production workers right here in Wilton in its significantly expanding state-of-the-art production facilities, I wonder how those hundreds of newly arrived skilled employees and their families will react to living in Wilton if they see the highly prized and extolled quality of the public education we provide — our single strongest determinant of new family location here — compromised through inadequate educational funding. That would surely be a truly ironical result.
*This story has been edited to correct errors that appeared in the printed version.