View from Glen Hill: Taking the long view
The well-attended Annual Town Meeting was an inspiring gathering for the civility of public comments, the excellence of Scott Lawrence as moderator, and especially for the quality of the work done by our town boards in budget preparation and presentation. It’s clear that a lot of very good long-range thinking and careful deliberation went into the finished product that received voter approval both during the meeting itself and in balloting thereafter.
So where are we as a town?
We have large reserves to preserve our triple-A bond rating and for prudence. We know we can’t rely on the state for much, if anything, and the budget reflects that fact. We also have made great strides in assuring that our pension obligations are fully funded in a long-term effort that was farsightedly proposed by Dick Dubow some years ago — as Board of Finance Chair Jeff Rutishauser acknowledged with appreciation during the Annual Meeting — and has been carried out incrementally year-by-year since then. And our town has had an unbroken record over the past 17 years of having budgets strictly adhered to in actual year-end financial results.
What do we face going forward?
Contrary to fears expressed by some in prior years, our town has not lost population from aging but in fact is experiencing the very encouraging reality that many enjoy staying here long after the completion of their kids’ Wilton education. In some cases, that stay-in-place choice has been facilitated by supporting programs of our town government and by very well-run and active volunteer organizations. However, a well-balanced and dynamic town needs, of course, to be attractive to newer as well as older families, and schools are key to that attractiveness.
Concerning school enrollment, broad national trends of later marriage and child-raising ages suggest that we can expect a drop in school-aged children. That population trend line will be skewed by five years or so as the impact of the shift in age of marriage and childbirth plays out. But that upward shift in maternal childbirth age has a natural limit, of course, given the risks of later-age pregnancies and then menopause itself. So unless we decide to will ourselves out of existence, birthrates will resume rising.
Some believe the period of gradually decreasing Wilton school enrollment may take us down to 3,600 students before the trend reverses (from around 4,000 today and 4,300 seven years ago). Other data, however, shows a rising trend in birthrates specific to Wilton beginning in 2012 and modestly increasing continuously since then (in data reported by the New England School Development Council through 2015, the last year covered in their report). In fact, preliminary enrollments in kindergarten are surprisingly high, and Middlebrook already shows a five-student increase for next academic year as noted during the Annual Meeting.
In any event, reductions in student enrollment don’t translate into staff reductions in the same way as in factory settings given such factors as teacher specialization (for example, a French teacher can’t replace a band director) and the lumpiness with which changes are felt across our schools: some up, others down for an overall expected reduction of only 36 students for next academic year, and even that much of a reduction is uncertain now for, among other things, reasons just mentioned.
Remembering how the decision to move here for so many of us was heavily determined by the quality of Wilton’s schools, what can we do to assure that adjustments for any temporarily declining student enrollment don’t impact that quality? For example, as ASML — Wilton’s largest employer, in a leadership position in a cutting-edge technology — greatly expands its research and manufacturing facilities here over the next few years adding hundreds of new highly skilled professionals, how will Wilton convince them to live in the town where they work? We certainly won’t do so by compromising the quality of our schools.
In all of this, it’s very encouraging to see the creative long-term thinking that is going on at all levels of our town government. Our town’s key boards and their professional staffs have a great vision for us, as was very evident at the Annual Meeting and in all of the careful work that went into the proposed budget presented there. And now School Superintendent Kevin Smith has announced a long-range planning exercise beginning later this month which also promises good results.
This excellent collaborative work beginning so early in the annual process bodes well, and we can all hope that it continues and bears much good fruit.