Notes from the Board Table: Community involvement in budget discussions is vital
It seems that most of my conversations these days include discussion about the 2017-18 school operating budget. I have told anyone who will listen that in my eight years on the Board of Education, I have not seen a more perilous time for our schools, and that the threat of Board of Finance-mandated drastic cuts to the budget is very real. My listener’s typical reaction? “Yes, but don’t you guys say that every year?”
It is true that every year we try to light a fire under the community to make people realize the importance of supporting the school budget. But this year is different. It’s truly a 5-alarm situation, and we need every member of our community to pay attention, and resolve to come out and vote for our school budget in May.
Why is this year different? For one thing, our town faces a precarious financial situation. Our tax base is down. We don’t seem to be attracting new commercial businesses, and our housing market is nowhere near as strong as it has been. And many people feel their property taxes are too high.
Add in the economic fiasco taking place in Hartford, and it’s understandable that our Board of Finance wants to tread very carefully in this year’s town budget deliberations. While nothing in Hartford is certain at this point, Governor Dan Malloy has proposed dramatic cuts to local education funding, along with a new plan to shift 30% of teacher pension costs back to the towns. (Forget the fact that we already pay teacher pension costs through our state taxes, which the governor will not be sending back to the towns, so essentially we will get to pay the tab twice).
Between the town’s negative outlook, and the state’s disastrous outlook, it’s easy to see that this is, indeed, an unusual year. It was brought home to me last Thursday evening, when Superintendent Kevin Smith addressed the board about his plan for responding to any dramatic cut to our budget. Superintendent Smith is normally very reserved on the issue of budget cuts, and reluctant to discuss publicly his concerns about spending reduction implications.
So, when he stated his belief that any further cuts would have negative consequences, we all took notice.
“I’m very concerned that given the current fiscal climate here in the town, that our budget is going to be taken down, and we’re going to be forced to defer or eliminate programs,” Dr. Smith stated. “I think those reductions will diminish the quality of education that we provide here to the residents of Wilton.”
Dr. Smith informed the board that he has instructed the administrative team to prepare for the likelihood of additional cuts. All building principals have been asked to prioritize spending, and recommend areas for potential reductions or elimination. To the extent possible, any cuts will minimize the impact on students and teachers but, as Dr. Smith noted, “we are already at a flat budget,” so any further reductions will unavoidably impact students.
It’s critical to understand though, the power community members have to influence the Board of Finance in their deliberations. As I have mentioned previously, when residents fail to speak out in any great number, finance board members take that as a “silent approval” of their work. I truly hope we can change this perception by sending an unmistakable message to the Board of Finance that (a) Wilton residents support their schools; (b) we do not want to risk damaging the excellent work that goes on in the schools; and (c) any additional cuts to the school budget are unwise, short-sighted and dangerous.
Please mark your calendar for the following critical dates:
- Monday, March 20, 7:30pm, Middlebrook Auditorium: Board of Finance Hearing on proposed 2017-2018 school operating budget.
- Tuesday, May 2, 7:30pm, Clune Center Auditorium: Annual Town Meeting followed by voting on proposed budget.
- Saturday, May 6, Clune Center Auditorium: Voting continues on proposed budget.
In addition, you can communicate directly with Board of Finance members by sending an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The threat of significant cuts to our budget is very real. I know in my heart that most residents believe as I do, that our schools are the jewels of the Wilton community, and that they are worth fighting for. And at the risk of sounding like a broken record, please take the time to become engaged and participate in the coming budget discussions.