Wilton school board faces a full agenda

We had a full agenda at our Feb. 7 regular Board of Education meeting, and covered a range of topics including the 2013-14 operating budget, adjustments to the 2013-14 calendar, Miller-Driscoll renovations, a proposal to implement full-day kindergarten, and the appointment of Maria Coleman as principal of Middlebrook School.

Middlebrook Principal. The Board unanimously approved the appointment of Maria Coleman to succeed Julia Harris as principal of Middlebrook School.  Mrs. Harris announced her intention to retire at the end of the school year, creating a need to ensure a seamless transition. Dr. Richards convened a sizable search committee including parents, teachers, and members from the Board of Education which was led by Jane Anderson, the District Human Resources Director. Several qualified candidates were considered. Maria’s strong qualifications and track record set her apart. In 1999 Maria began her career in the Wilton schools as a second grade teacher at Driscoll, before being promoted to the assistant principal and associate principal positions at Wilton High School.  Maria graduated Magna Cum Laude from Boston University and holds a Master’s from Fairfield University. She has distinguished herself as a top-notch educator, and we are delighted she will be the next leader of our blue ribbon middle school.

2013-14 Calendar Revision. This past weekend’s storm forced us to close schools for the eighth day this year. Because we’ve been reactive to Mother Nature for the past two years, we decided to proactively amend next year’s calendar in order to: (a) manage multiple weather-forced closures; and (b) give families a greater degree of certainty as to how the school calendar will be affected by inclement weather. With that in mind, the Board adopted the following revisions to next year’s school calendar:

• Reduce the number of parent conference days from five to four.

• Convert February break into a FIVE-DAY weekend.

• Move the Feb. 3 Professional Development Day to Feb. 13.

• Vacation Days — Feb. 14 and 17.

• Move the last day of school to June 9.

• This would provide the district with close to 10 “snow” days before any instructional days would be affected.

Full-day Kindergarten. The proposal to implement a full-day Kindergarten program brought out several dozen parents, many of whom shared their views, both pro and con, about how this program might affect their children. We are grateful for their input. The Board heard a presentation from our Miller-Driscoll leadership team detailing how a full-day program would work in Wilton. We also heard from three of our Kindergarten teachers, who believe strongly that the longer day would allow for a more relaxed and effective learning pace, and help our youngest learners to focus on core curriculum concepts to an extent not possible under our current program.

The Board will continue to consider the full-day Kindergarten proposal, with a final decision expected at our March 7 regular meeting.

2013-14 Operating Budget. Next on the agenda was final consideration of an operating budget for the 2013-14 school year. Dr. Richards presented the Board with his recommended budget in December. As I outlined in my last “Notes” meeting overview, Dr. Richards’ budget fully funded all contractual obligations and special education mandates. The budget included funding for all core curriculum programs, maintained classroom sizes that fall within Board guidelines, and continued our commitment to technology. Dr. Richards’ budget proposed a 4.39 percent spending increase, 80% of which would fund contractual obligations and special education costs — items over which we have very limited control.

At the Board’s request, the administration eliminated more than $410,000 from the original budget request. These reductions come from a variety of sources, including revised health care estimates, reductions in audio/visual materials and general supplies, cut backs on textbook replacements, deferral of athletic equipment purchases, elimination of three technology projects, and deferral of plans to paint the WHS field house.

The Board voted to adopt the revised budget, which is now under consideration by the Board of Finance. The Board of Finance requested that our increase not exceed 1.75%. Given the reality of mandatory special education costs which are projected to rise over 12% next year that is a difficult challenge. We have however been able to bring all other aspects of our budget in within that guidance. Unfortunately, that still leaves us with a 3.83% year-over-year increase when special education costs are factored in. We are optimistic that our colleagues on the Board of Finance will recognize the careful consideration we gave to our spending plan, and the need to maintain our investment in our schools.

Capital Budget. When residents turn out to vote on the budget in May, they actually consider two different budgets — the town’s operating budget, the school portion of which is outlined above, and the town’s capital budget. The capital budget includes significant capital projects that will be financed over a period of several years. The Board of Education has no projects included in this year’s capital budget, although we did approve projections on projects anticipated in future years including security upgrades (which are likely to change pending results of the new District Security Task Force), maintenance projects, and a major renovation of Miller-Driscoll.

Miller-Driscoll. Anyone who has spent time in Miller-Driscoll recently can attest the building is in need of upgrading and repair. Discussions have been underway for the past several years regarding the proper course to take. Last year the Board of Selectmen determined the building would be renovated (as opposed to replaced), and we have been working with them to fine tune a “statement of requirements” (SOR) to serve as our guiding principles as the project moves forward. The document has been forwarded to the Board of Selectmen, which is expected to consider the project in the coming weeks. The SOR is posted on our website, and provides a detailed overview of our vision for meeting our Preschool and K-2 needs.

I hope this meeting recap helps keep you informed about your Board of Education’s activities. Budget season is an especially busy time of year, and the process moves rather quickly. I encourage you to stay informed, and to become involved!  You can email the Board of Education at BOE@wilton.k12.ct.us and the Board of Finance at Boardoffinance@wiltonct.org.