Wilton finance board mulls cuts to schools’ budget request

Board of Finance members Michael Kaelin, left, and Stewart Koenigsberg, pictured in February 2020, weighed in on the amended BOE budget on Tuesday.

Board of Finance members Michael Kaelin, left, and Stewart Koenigsberg, pictured in February 2020, weighed in on the amended BOE budget on Tuesday.

Jarret Liotta / For Hearst Connecticut Media

WILTON — The Board of Finance recently questioned a number of aspects of the Board of Education’s proposed $87.5 million budget, including possibly trimming the overall figure.

The BOE unanimously approved the budget request after a number of changes from the initial draft. The first draft proposed a 2.99 percent increase from last year’s budget, totaling $87.3 million, but after some calculations, that total rose to the currently adopted 3.26 percent increase at $87.5 million.

The school board did find some areas to cut spending though. A line item for document digitization was cut by $55,000, while a “defined benefits” item was reduced by $112,000 and transportation contracts were whittled down by $60,000.

While the finance board cannot change the allocation of funds for a specific line item in the BOE budget like they may to the town’s, it can adjust the overall figure.

BOF member Stewart Koenigsberg, while lauding the BOE for their “wonderful” performance, questioned the costs of a number of items in the budget and ultimately said he would suggest decreasing the overall amount.

A line item for moving costs totaling $180,000 also caught the ire of Koenigsberg. “You would think there would be some alternatives at non-union rates to do moving,” he said. “And I can think of a dozen that I would do if I was looking at spending $180,000 personally to move primarily desks and chairs.”

Numerous finance board members pointed out that they had sent Superintendent Kevin Smith and the BOE a list of questions on the budget, which were returned just hours before their Tuesday night meeting. BOF member Rich Santosky noted that the question of moving expenses was included in that packet. He and fellow member Chris Stroup mostly abstained from comments, as they wished to read the BOE responses before giving their thoughts.

“Frankly, the flooring and the ceiling tiles, I didn’t find to be incredibly compelling,” Koenigsberg said to his fellow BOF members Tuesday. The finance board joined the BOE and the Board of Selectmen last week for a tour of targeted areas for upgrade at Middlebrook Middle School and Wilton High School. Koenigsberg did say that the need for new elevators at the buildings was a safety concern and that “is compelling.”

Stroup questioned if delaying buying materials could make for a larger cost in the long run due to inflation of building materials costs.

As a president of a New York City-based construction and development firm, Santosky doesn’t expect “anything is going to get cheaper in the next year,” noting that wood is up 150 percent over the last 14 to 18 months and petroleum prices to make products like carpets are also steadily rising.

Koenigsberg also referred to trends he has noticed in number of student enrollment versus staff numbers. “I don’t think we can continue to have the number of students decrease while we have the number of staff increase,” he said.

The BOE budget proposal lists a total of 3,600 anticipated students with 565 staff members. “At the peak,” Koenigsberg said, “we had roughly 4,600 students and 590 employees.” He argued that the decline in students has dropped 20 percent, however the employee population remained at roughly 4 percent.

According to one demographer’s presentation to the BOE in December, the district is slated to see an increase in younger grade enrollment over the next decade while high school numbers will mostly continue to fall.

Lastly, he noted that he is surprised by the addition of “instructional coaches” in the district when town boasts the “third highest of 161 towns” for cost per teacher.

Fellow finance board member Sandra Arkell thought that the BOE was very clear in its needs for its staff total to further social and emotional guidance for students and math support. She also said that she believed the BOE to have had a “very thoughtful approach” in their composition of the budget proposal.

Chairman Michael Kaelin said that, while hearing members’ reasonings, he and the rest of the board need to seriously begin to think on whether they will vote to uphold or reduce the $87.5 million ask and, if so, by how much.

The BOF will still have a public hearing to influence their opinion leading up to the April 12 deadline for a recommended budget to the town.