Wilton finance board hears school budget request
WILTON — While they made no promises as to how things will play out this budget season, based on their queries of school officials, Board of Finance members appear comfortable with the reasoning behind next year’s $84-million request.
Financiers paid a visit to the Board Education Thursday night, Feb. 6, to review questions around Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith’s proposed $83,989,144 budget request.
“This is a first stage,” Finance Chairman Jeff Rutishauser said at the conclusion of the amicable 90-minute meeting. “We make no promises. This was a good presentation.”
This year the finance board decided not to request specific increase limits of either the school’s or first selectwoman’s budget proposals.
While financiers gave no confirmations of whether they approve of the requested number, which technically amounts to a 2.6-percent increase over last year’s approved budget, school board members indicated they would be adopting Smith’s proposed budget with no changes when they vote on Feb. 20.
“The likelihood is that it will be (adopted),” said Glenn Hemmerle, a school board member. “It’s a good budget when you look at the challenges we face.”
Financiers expressed some surprise that other area towns—namely Weston and Westport — had school boards that asked their respective superintendents to lower their budgets before offering approval.
“I can assure you that if the superintendent brought in a budget that was five percent, we would have said something,” Deborah Low, school board chair, said.
“I think our board does not see our job as just a rubber stamp … We know what the financial climate is … We look at what the kids’ needs are,” she said, calling it a “balancing act.”
Board of Finance member Stewart Koenigsberg said he saw two contingents in town that would likely raise questions about the budget as proposed — one being those questioning the staff-to-student ratio being upheld with enrollment on the decline, and the other people who would like to see the school administration taking more action to find ways to partner with other districts to share costs.
“There haven’t been serious conversations with anyone anywhere,” Smith said of cooperative initiatives between districts, which were being encouraged by Gov. Ned Lamont last year.
“In fact,” Smith said, “I think there is some substantial red tape getting in the way of doing that.”
He said if they really wanted to get serious about it, they should talk about relocating schools on the borders between towns, though he admitted he hadn’t yet had discussions with other superintendents on sharing items such as transportation costs.
Low said there has been some discussion about pooling insurance costs with other districts, “but we haven’t seen a model that works for us,” she said.
Regarding enrollment and staffing, Smith acknowledged he had put several new full-time employees into place the past few years, including coordinator positions and library-media specialists, but defended it as part of the overall strategic plan for his system.
“We are a very high-quality district and we continue to be,” he said.
He explained that enrollment will remain steady in the primary grades, at least for the immediate future, though secondary grade sizes will diminish substantially.
According to projections, the next five years will see Middlebrook School reduce from 935 students to 824, while Wilton High School will drop from 1,307 to 1,135.
The only member of the public to share comment was Walter Kress, a former Board of Finance member, who asked the school board to “respond to the community” about how this proposed budget was considered justifiable in relation to overall declining enrollment.
“I’d like some comments on perhaps how you wrestle with that,” he said.