Wilton Board of Ed adopts $84-million budget

WILTON - With minimal discussion and no changes, the Board of Education adopted the superintendent’s proposed $84-million budget as its own Thursday night.

It was a unanimous vote that followed a month of public airing of the $83,989,144 proposal, which represents a 2.58-percent increase over the current budget. When the costs of the Genesis Alternative School are taken into account, the increase is 2 percent.

“We think it’s the budget that will meet our goals,” Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith said.

“It’s now the official Board of Education budget,” said Chairman Deborah Low.

Glenn Hemmerle was the only member to offer impromptu remarks on the budget, offering praise for Smith and calling the increase, as compared to other comparable districts, “phenomenal.”

“Year after year we’ve consistently come forward with budgets lower than our DRG,” he said, referencing Wilton’s District Reference Group A, which includes Darien, Easton, New Canaan, Redding, Ridgefield, Weston, Westport, and District 9.

“You’ve exercised great judgment,” Hemmerle said, “you’ve exercised restraint, and you’ve figured out how we’re going to do the things we’re going to do.

“We’re delivering a great product,” he said. “We have great students and it doesn’t happen cheaply to do that. We excel in the arts, music, sports; academically we’re making progress in all measures of our performance.

Hemmerle noted, however, that the Board of Finance’s decision to not suggest an increase-limit to the school board this year — nor one to the Board of Selectmen — was of some concern to him.

“I was troubled by the fact that we did not get guidance from the Board of Finance this year,” he said.

“We have significant challenges before us and significant goals — what we want our graduates to be. We worked hard to define that and we have deliverables we have defined and this budget takes this in that direction.”

Earlier this month financiers visited the school board to hear some details on different areas of increase in the budget proposal. They also received an explanation of how this year’s approved budget did not include the $468,000 for the first year of funding the Genesis program, thus making the new request — which include the second year of Genesis funding — a 2.58-percent increase over the $81,876,564 approved for 2019-20.

While Board of Finance members gave no sign of how they saw the budget proposal, the joint meeting was amicable and its members appeared comfortable with details of the logic behind the request.

Low described the budget as one that “balances student educational needs with fiscal responsibility for taxpayers. The budget supports our standards for excellence in education and aligns with our mission and goals. It moves us forward at a reasonable pace towards achieving our vision for all graduates.”

The budget also, she said, supports “best practices for education in the 21st century” which are far different from those of 30 or 40 years ago.

Specifically, she said the budget:

 Maintains reasonable class sizes.

 Ensures the most talented teachers.

 Supports a powerful digital learning environment.

 Continues math course revisions at Middlebrook.

 Updates and adds high school courses in world language, media, social studies and math.

 Adds “much-needed” facilities renovations at Middlebrook.

She warned that, should the Board of Finance choose to seek cuts to the budget proposal, “our choices become difficult at that point.”

She said, given the tightness of the budget, a reduction would lead to school staff “nickel and diming” for supplies and equipment, and would also lead to slower progress in initiatives, including digital learning, school climate and teacher training. Putting off or drawing out facilities work at Middlebrook would delay needed work at the high school, she added.

“If reductions are extreme or draconian,” she said, staff cuts would become necessary and this would adversely impact class sizes.

She also said the finance board should remember the increases of the last five years which included two years at zero percent and the rest ranging from 0.77 percent to 1.98 percent.

“We will need public involvement and support during the next steps,” Low said, encouraging people to attend Board of Finance hearings and emailing their opinions.