Wilton Board of Education prepares to defend budget

WILTON — The only real question the Board of Education had Thursday night in reviewing Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith’s proposed $84-million budget was whether he was asking for enough money to meet all needs.

Next Thursday, Feb. 6, the board will hold a special meeting with the Board of Finance to talk about the $83,989,144 request for the 2020-21 school year. It represents a 2.6-percent increase over last year’s $81,876,564 approved budget, but accounts for only a 2-percent increase when the cost of the Genesis Alternative School program—which was funded separately last year but is now included in the new total operating budget request—is taken into account.

“I just want to make sure that all the schools feel they’re covered for the year,” said board member Ruth DeLuca.

“I want to make sure we’re doing all that’s necessary,” agreed member Glenn Hemmerle, who said he wanted to be sure Smith was comfortable with the amount.

“This is collectively what we believe is the right budget to allow us to take steps forward,” Smith said.

While he acknowledged that the individual schools “could always use a little bit more in supplies,” he said his staff was “also trying to exercise internal discipline.”

Other board members expressed support for the request, on which they’re scheduled to vote on Feb. 20.

This year the finance board is choosing not to give the school board — nor the Board of Selectmen — specific guideline numbers to shoot for in their individual proposals.

The Board of Education has also prepared a packet of questions and answers based on some recent discussions, which it hopes will help assuage the concerns of financiers.

“Hopefully this will address upfront questions they may have,” Hemmerle said.

In particular, Chair Deborah Low explained, the issue of why costs — particularly for staffing — aren’t going down in light of declining enrollment is a recurring question from the Board of Finance and others in town.

“I think that, quite honestly, will be a challenge to explain,” she said, particularly the roles of staffers not directly interacting with students.

Smith took some time explaining how the schools operate under different models, depending on student age, and sometimes they must talk in terms of maintaining overall staff ratios to students, versus correlations between teachers and students.

Special service requirements also sometimes necessitate one-on-one involvement with students, making declining enrollment numbers less relevant in relation to meeting student needs.

“I think there’s a wonderful story within special education to tell,” Low said, commending the work.

One of the staffing changes involves five new special-education teachers, alongside the loss of five special-education paraprofessionals.

“As wonderful as the paraprofessionals have been in support … we need the more technical expertise and background,” Low said, of certified staff.

Smith spoke of some ongoing initiatives—or “strategies”—that are in place but require time to net results.

“We’re looking at longer-term improvements with incremental changes over time,” he said, “and this budget gets us there.”

For the benefit of new board members, he described next week’s budget meeting with the Board of Finance as likely to be “congenial.”

“It’s a shared conversation,” he said, noting per pupil staffing and enrollment decline would be the topics of note.

“We’ll do our best to respond to those specific questions,” he said.