Notes from the Board Table: Calendar trade-offs, costs and some changes

On Wednesday Jan. 9, the Board of Education held its second budget workshop with Superintendent Dr. Gary Richards, the school principals and the district leadership team. Also on the agenda was a vote to revise next year’s school calendar in an attempt to get ahead of the chaos Mother Nature has thrown at us these past two years.

This is the fourth time next year’s calendar has been in front of the board, but given recent emails from parents requesting we give the topic more time, we moved the vote to our upcoming Feb. 7 meeting. The board has heard from many parents on this topic, and we are grateful for the time they have taken to contact us. We continue to welcome feedback at BOE@Wilton.K12.CT.US.

The proposed revisions to next year’s calendar (2013-14) incorporate key findings and feedback from parents, this year and last. Revisions include:

•    Reduce the number of parent-teacher conference days from five to four. We thank the teachers’ union for agreeing to this change.

•    Convert February break to a four-day weekend with Feb. 14 and 17 as vacation days and Feb. 18, 19, 20, and 21 as instructional days.

•    Move the published last day of school to June 9.

•    All unplanned school closures would then be made up by adding days to the end of the school year.

While this plan may not be ideal for all families, it does provide:

•    Appropriate stretches when school is in session for optimal learning.

•    Breaks for students, families, and faculty when needed.

•    Somewhat predictable scheduling, given Mother Nature’s unpredictability.

The rest of our budget study session was spent analyzing the superintendent’s budget proposal. In its current form, the 2013-14 budget proposal represents a 4.39% increase over the 2012-13 budget. In evaluating this proposal, we would ask the public to please consider the following:

•    Special education costs (which represent 22% of our budget) are projected to rise 12.19%. Sixty percent of the special education cost increases are attributable to increases in outplacements, contracted services and transportation. The remaining increases are attributable to payroll cost increases driven by unavoidable head count and contract requirements. The superintendent will be publishing a “super-graphic” to share these numbers in greater detail.

•    Labor costs (which represent 64.5% of our budget, exclusive of SPED personnel costs included in the number above) are projected to rise 2.58% even though we are proposing a 0.7 FTE reduction in non-SPED related head count. These costs include all negotiated union contracts and non-union salaries, medical benefits, and retirement fund costs.

•    All other costs (which represent 13.5% of our budget) are proposed to rise 1.45%. These “other costs” include heating oil, electricity, water, security, facilities maintenance, busing children to and from school, textbooks and workbooks, library books and catalogs, new courses, technology, athletics, the arts, etc.

The superintendent’s proposed budget includes:

•    Two new course offerings at Middlebrook, “Introduction to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math” (I-STEM), which would replace the current industrial arts program with an activity-based pre-engineering course for sixth through eighth grade students, and “Culinary Arts: A Lifetime of Wellness,” which would be offered to eighth graders.

•    Technology upgrades that will enable us to keep pace with software and hardware innovations that are having such a tremendous impact on how students are taught. The budget also includes funds to expand wireless capability and upgrade outdated computers.

•    Class sizes that fall within board guidelines. The 2012-13 Class Size Report is posted on the district website.

•    Full-day kindergarten — Although not yet approved by the board, the proposed budget includes provisions for “all day, every day kindergarten,” which would replace Wilton’s current practice of two full days and three half-days. The proposal includes adding 2.3 reading teachers at Miller-Driscoll to increase each student’s weekly small group reading instruction time. These position costs are offset by head count reductions in other areas. The board has received numerous emails on this topic, which are greatly appreciated.

What’s next: The community will have an opportunity to weigh in on the superintendent’s proposed budget at the public hearing, scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 24, at 7 p.m. in the Middlebrook auditorium, and again during the superintendent’s proposed budget presentation to the PTA on Jan. 31 at 9:15 a.m. in the Cider Mill cafeteria. The Board of Education will then adapt and/or adopt the budget at its following meeting.