Wilton BOF reduces school budget request, lowers mill rate increase

Board of Finance members Michael Kaelin, left, and Stewart Koenigsberg, pictured in 2020, both voted to lower the budgetary request of the Board of Education by $893,202.

Board of Finance members Michael Kaelin, left, and Stewart Koenigsberg, pictured in 2020, both voted to lower the budgetary request of the Board of Education by $893,202.

Jarret Liotta / For Hearst Connecticut Media

WILTON — After much deliberation and initial disagreement from its members, the Board of Finance passed the Board of Selectmen budget request but reduced the Board of Education’s budgetary ask by about $893,000 Monday.

The board passed the unchanged selectmen’s request of $33.9 million in a 5-1 vote. It passed the schools’ budget with the reduction in a 4-2 vote.

Finance board Chair Michael Kaelin, Vice Chair Stewart Koenigsberg and members Richard Santosky and Matt Raimondi voted to lower the BOE budget request, noting that the overall budget is still more than $1 million more than the current budget. Board members Chris Stroup and Sandra Arkell opted to support the Board of Education budget as presented.

The BOE unanimously agreed to propose a budget of $87.5 million to the town’s financial board earlier this year. The new schools budget would stand at nearly $86.7 million after the finance board’s cut but would need to pass at the selectmen level next.

A major reason for the finance board’s reduction was to lower the mill rate increase set to occur. If the BOE budget were passed as originally presented, the mill rate would have increased by a little more than 1.9 percent.

Throughout the discussion Monday night, Santosky said he thought it proper to lower the mill rate increase total “by a half of a percent,” while a number of other finance board members agreed in principal that the proposed ask was too high.

With the decrease in the BOE budget, the new mill rate increase sits at just over 1.2 percent, leaving the mill rate at 28.2031 for the upcoming fiscal year.

A mill rate is the amount of tax per dollar of an assessed value of something and the rate is equal to $1 of tax for each $1,000 of assessment.

The finance board spent weeks workshopping the numbers and looking over the many line items in the budget, and while the BOF does not have the jurisdiction to dictate a specific line item change, they did hover a magnifying glass over a few numbers that they thought were “wants, but not needs.”

Kaelin, who opened his budget review statements by reminding the room that he was elected to his seat after a campaign that was run on his support for the Board of Education budget, said that he was confident in all of its proposals until this year. He noted that the BOE might not have “cut all the fat” off of its budget request and may have included “wants” in addition to needs during a time where many are feeling financial burdens.

He pointed to $1.4 million budgeted for the salaries and benefits of instructional coaches for the district’s teachers. He said the four coaches for kindergarten through second grade total $565,000 in salaries and benefits, with three in Cider Mill Elementary, two in Middlebrook Middle School and just one at Wilton High School making up the rest of the allotment.

Kaelin questioned if this was a need from a taxpayer’s point of view. He was adamant though that he did not question the efficacy of the positions and trusted that the Board of Education knew better than he or his BOF cohort about the positive effects these instructional coaches have on the teachers and students.

Koenigsberg and Santosky focused on bonded versus capital projects and how that would make a difference in the budget.

While the finance board does not have the ability to change allocations for specific line items for the schools, Koenigsberg and Santosky pointed to the request to replace elevators in the schools. They agreed the replacements are needed, but questioned whether the money could be bonded over the elevators’ 20-year lifespan, instead of incorporating it in the capital budget to be paid for upfront.

Raimondi said he wanted to take a “longer-term view” when reviewing the budget. Fellow member Stroup rebutted, saying that the board was not tasked with making decisions on taxations over the next decade, but rather to focus on the proposal they have in front of them and trust that the elected members of both the BOE and BOS did their due diligence.

Kaelin reiterated that many of these are not decisions the BOF are obligated to make and refocused the room before nailing down the amount of the cut that was ultimately passed with a majority vote.