Notes from the Board Table: Tonight's Annual Town Meeting is critical
I will have exactly five minutes during this Tuesday night’s Annual Town Meeting to explain to residents why any additional cuts to the education budget would be unwise. Why any efforts to proactively cut our budget, out of concern that Hartford may reduce, possibly eliminate, our town’s Education Cost Sharing (ECS) grant, could do grave damage to our town’s most important asset, our school system.
I intend to use my five minutes wisely. Please keep in mind that — as originally proposed — our 2016-17 operating budget called for a 1.27% increase, which was reduced $400,000 by the Board of Finance. The budget increase we are now bringing to the town this week calls for a 0.77% increase in Board of Education spending.
Since we compete against our neighboring towns in so many areas, it’s important to consider what other town school budgets look like this year:
- Ridgefield: 4.9%
- New Canaan: 3.65%
- Darien: 3.44%
- Fairfield: 2.59%
- Westport: 1.29%
- Wilton: 0.77%
I feel very good about our budget, and truly hope enough supporters will attend the Town Meeting to soundly defeat any motions made from the floor to impose sweeping reductions.
As you may be aware, some in town have written letters or posted comments on social media sites demanding massive cuts to our budget. “Eliminate the fat,” or “sharpen your pencils and get to work,” and “go for deep special education reductions,” seem to be common refrains. It’s easy to speculate that in an $80-million budget, there has to be inefficiency and waste. Believe me, if there is inefficiency in our budget, no one wants to find it and eliminate it more than I do.
I will tell you that as our board anticipates the likelihood of significant cuts from Hartford, we will put everything on the table. Every program, every headcount and every service will be considered for possible cutbacks or elimination. That said, we will work very hard to protect the work going on in our classrooms, and to protect the commitment we have made to instructional improvement. This year for example, we are planning to hire math interventionists at Miller-Driscoll, Cider Mill and Wilton High School. Not moving ahead with these positions would be a serious disservice to our students, so I believe our board would consider those positions to be off limits.
There are other examples of core instructional investments that we will shield from the current budget debate, but everything else is subject to review. A few weeks ago I was scolded by members of the community for listing some of the budget items that might be considered for reduction. This list included items that many consider sacred cows: athletics, theatre, arts, and foreign language. It’s painful to even consider cuts in these areas, and yet here we are.
I believe we are at the point where additional cuts will have unintended consequences.
We all celebrated last week when U.S. News and World Report listed Wilton High School as the 7th best high school in the state, and the 386th best in the nation. That top-notch ranking didn’t happen by luck or chance. It was because of the sustained investment Wilton has made in its schools — the investment that has gotten us to the point where we can provide our students with an outstanding education. We cannot take our focus off of our most valuable asset now, or else we will quickly see our investment devalue.
I mentioned last week that Board of Finance Chairman Jeff Rutishauser and First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice have been speaking with their counterparts in neighboring towns who also face significant reductions in their ECS funding. To a person, no one has said they think it’d be a good idea to force their schools to take the entire hit. These towns seem to be planning to rely on combinations of reserve funds, tax increases and spending reductions to address whatever reductions occur.
I hope the same logical approach will prevail in Wilton, and I believe it will.
First Selectman Vanderslice and I have indicated our preference for having the town’s three governing boards — Finance, Education and Selectmen — sit down and plot a course forward. I look forward to those discussions.
For now though, we will continue to monitor negotiations between the state legislature and Gov. Malloy. With so much uncertainty in Hartford, it would be premature and potentially harmful to proactively mandate cuts to the education budget.
If you haven’t made arrangements to attend the Town Meeting, please do so. Now more than ever, your schools need your support. The meeting is scheduled for Tuesday evening, May 3, 7:30 p.m. in the Clune Center. If you absolutely cannot attend, please make sure to stop by the Clune Center on Saturday, May 7 to cast your vote.