Wilton school board OK’s cuts for flat budget

WILTON — The Board of Education gave unanimous support Thursday night to Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith’s revised $82,344,563 budget for the 2020-21 school year.

Representing a $1.65-million decrease over his original $84-million proposal, the budget represents an overall flat proposal compared to the current operating budget.

“Our budget reflects our best hopes for what the year can be,” said Smith, who made a plea for the necessity of the funding, citing the many unknowns on the horizon next year.

At the same time, on Smith’s recommendation, the board unanimously approved the redistribution of $2,950,562 in projected surplus from the current operating budget, including $869,000 to be held in reserve and $1,177,822 in encumbered expenses.

While $3,000,562 was previously anticipated for the surplus, this week $50,000 went toward settlement of the current bus contract.

The board unanimously approved a request to the Board of Selectmen to reserve $869,000 for unanticipated costs related to COVID-19, including $519,000 for special education needs, including potential legal costs, and $350,000 for various general operating needs.

The board also unanimously approved up to $800,000 for the purchase of tech equipment, including $300,000 to purchase 1,000 Chromebooks for students and $318,000 to buy 265 laptops for staff. These will bought instead of leasing, as has traditionally been done, in order to realize savings over time with reduced fees and taxes.

The board also unanimously approved encumbrance of $377,822 to pay for a collection of expenses that are not in next year’s budget, including $200,000 for a random range of supplies and equipment items, including art, athletic and science equipment, musical instruments, and blinds for the Miller-Driscoll School front office. Other expenses included general supplies, textbooks, training costs, and miscellaneous transportation costs.

The remaining $903,740 would be directly returned to the town at the end of the fiscal year.

While board members stood behind the recommendations, two members of the public shared requests that the $3 million be returned to the town in its entirety and the school board consider making deeper cuts into the proposed budget.

“That’s what prudent organizations are doing during these unprecedented times,” said Paul Bologna.

“The consequences of reckless governments in times like this could bankrupt Wilton,” he said, noting it could result in greater consequences in years to come.

“Now is the time for all involved in Wilton to sacrifice today to preserve the possibility for tomorrow,” he said.

Ed Papp wrote in support of a 5-percent reduction — something the Board of Finance requested details on but school board members don’t believe will even be considered.

“It is time for the Board of Education to recalibrate and reorganize its administrative and classroom personnel given declining enrollment,” he said.

“We can preserve program and support for students,” Chair Deborah Low said of the budget as approved, as well as class-size and staffing.

“We need the resources to provide students the best education possible,” she said, with a variety of health and safety issues yet to be determined.

“We also want to maintain our attraction to new families,” she said, believing that a reduction below 1.5 percent, as was outlined in another scenario, “turns our system into something not recognizable.”

Reduction scenarios

Per the finance board’s request, Smith also shared some details on what a 5-percent reduction and a 10-percent reduction would entail, respectively.

While he said a 1.5-percent reduction would demand a 5.5 reduction in certified staff, at 5 percent, a $78.2-million budget, he said he estimated a reduction of 36.5 staff members.

“We’d have to think about what are the most essential services we provide,” he said, “and then what are the services we would consider … non-essential or less essential, so we would have to go through a decision-making process.”

With a 10-percent reduction, or a $74.1-million budget, Smith said he would expect a 78.5 staff reduction, and possibly more.

“We certainly will endanger the way we are able to provide series to our special education students,” he said, calling the cut “catastrophic” were it to come to that.

“I don’t think we’re gonna go there,” Vice Chair Glenn Hemmerle said.

“I’m gonna take that to mean these are hypothetical, theoretical models, not any action plan,” Low said.

“I don’t mind the modeling part as long as they’re not contemplated,” she said.