View from Glen Hill: School budget preserves what is important

I wrote last month about the extraordinary teacher team who direct Middlebrook School’s remarkable Great Debates. Many other programs across our school system similarly underscore what great things are happening for our students under the guidance of outstanding teaching professionals, as our high school’s recent designation among the very top statewide demonstrates.

The Board of Finance acted wisely in approving the Board of Education’s zero-increase school budget. In these challenging budgetary times with added pressures created by the uncertainties surrounding state payments and demands, it’s critical to remember the gem we have in our schools. Their enormous strength is the principal reason behind Wilton’s ranking as “the second-best place in Connecticut to raise a family,” as is proudly proclaimed on the masthead of our town’s website.

But this complex system is also a fragile one. Our schools’ strengths are most of all a creature of its workers: its educators and staff. They represent the lion’s share of budgeted costs — as well they should in such a labor-intensive endeavor as education — and they are the cream of the crop, which means they have options. When a district loses its focus, morale is naturally impacted, and things can unwind quickly and unravel years of careful planning and execution. We need to recognize the critical importance of preserving that which is excellent and that functions so well.

Coming in with a zero-increase budget for our schools — especially in the face of salary increases under the new teachers’ union contract — is a huge accomplishment of which our schools can rightly be proud. It’s an especially impressive accomplishment when our neighboring towns are planning school-budget increases in the 1.6%-2.5% range: New Canaan (1.6%), Weston (2%), Darien (2.1%), Region 9 (2.2%), and Ridgefield (2.5%, cut from 3.48% after their Board of Finance’s review last week).  

In fact, our very hard-working Board of Education has made it clear that if they felt they could, they would have included at least another $800,000 in the budget for very necessary items dropped to get to that zero-percent increase. Anyone who thinks that education costs should move only in a downward direction has failed to consider what all of these towns are facing, including the ever-broadening array of unfunded state mandates and the rightful expectations of parents with special-needs children.

A $4-million teachers-pension-related “charge-back” element in the governor’s budget proposal unexpectedly reared its ugly head earlier this year. However, since this proposed state-budget item affects municipalities generally and none has made preparation for the funding of it, one can expect that state legislators (who must vote in favor of any such charge before it can take effect) will be united in opposition to it. And that is only fair, since Connecticut’s municipalities had no say in crafting those pension terms, and what employer in recent years would have supported a defined-benefit (as opposed to a defined-contribution) pension plan, given the ominously open-ended funding obligations under a defined-benefit plan?

On other fronts, some ingenious thinking by our schools’ senior administrators about special education cooperatives offers the potential for savings in the future but not for this coming fiscal year. So, notwithstanding the anticipated loss of state Education Cost Sharing funding for our town this coming year, our town leaders have wisely decided that the consideration foremost in our minds should be: Don’t do things that can be most fatal to our complex, yet fragile school system.

It’s also good to see the school administration acting on the importance of listening sessions with teachers. Cuts that do the most damage are, understandably, ones that go to the heart of the teaching function, such as cutting back on the number of teachers and paraprofessionals, thereby raising class size in Miller-Driscoll. That is where our youngest children are educated and where the greatest impact — as an overwhelming volume of research findings in early education have shown — can be achieved by intensive educational involvement for children in those critically formative early years.  

It’s very heartening that the Board of Finance has accepted the zero-percent increase presented by the Board of Education for the hard-won accomplishment that it is and thereby reinforced that great result by not imposing cuts. To do otherwise would have been dangerously to test the limits of fragility of our town’s most extraordinary public resource. The result represents a very well-balanced weighing of challenging budgetary issues, and it should be supported by all of us at the polls on May 2 (with continued voting on Saturday, May 6).