Wilton school board looks at possible budget cuts
WILTON — Concerned about COVID-19-related unknowns—including the breadth of potential legal costs relating to special education — the Board of Education is contemplating holding back an additional $150,000 of an operating surplus that resulted from the school closures.
On Tuesday night, May 5, the board continued discussion of how it should use and redistribute just over $3 million realized in savings following the March 11 closure, as well as what message it wants to send the Board of Finance in terms of next year’s budget.
“I truly think we need to go forward with a flat budget,” board Vice Chair Glenn Hemmerle said following a presentation highlighting possible further cuts.
Last month, the finance board asked school officials to present details on what a flat budget would look like, but also reductions of 2, 5 and 10 percent of this year’s budget.
Last week, Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith said that owing to state statute, Wilton was not even allowed to approve a budget that was any more than a 1.5-percent reduction over the current year without risking loss of state and federal funding.
Still, Tuesday night he shared details on where he believed cuts would need to be made in order to reflect a 1.5-percent reduction, including the equivalent of 5.5 full-time employees, as well as cuts to overtime and substitute funds. Smith said if staff reductions were needed he would try to do so through attrition rather than layoffs.
To get to a flat budget of $82.3 million would require cutting $1.6 million from the fiscal year 2021 request of $84 million. Smith outlined $90,000 in personnel cuts from temporary and substitute help.
Non-personnel costs of $1.5 million would mainly affect:
Building repairs — $662,000.
Conferences and seminars — $185,000.
Equipment — $200,000.
Operating/General Supplies — $50,000.
Technology plan/lease — $222,000.
To reduce the budget to reflect a 1.5-percent decrease over this fiscal year, to total $81.15 million, the cuts would be greater, adding up to $2.8 million.
In addition to the temporary and substitute help cuts, there would be other personnel cuts that would add up to $971,497:
Salary — $358,529.
Stipend — $50,000.
Overtime — $200,000.
Social Security — $30,000.
Employee benefits — $162,968.
On the non-personnel side, reductions of $1.9 million were outlined. The greatest of these were:
Building repairs — $715,000.
Conferences and seminars — $185,000.
Equipment — $200,000.
Office furniture — $71,000.
Operating/General Supplies — $100,000.
Technology plan/lease — $272,000.
Textbooks — $66,243.
Library books — $68,059.
“I’m really trying to avoid specifics,” Smith said, noting input from school principals would be needed for a clearer picture.
“This is not my recommendation of how we’d get to [1.5 percent],” he said. “If push came to shove … I would work with all administrators on this call [and] go back and do some more refinement.”
Asked if the 1.5-percent scenario would result in larger class sizes, he said it was possible, but that would depend on how the cuts were distributed.
“When you get to 5 percent, that number more than doubles,” Smith said of the staff cuts, stating it would “dramatically” impact the school functioning.
Yet he said financiers still want to hear those details, if only for some kind of perspective, and he said he would be providing them that information.
“This is not something that I feel they’re going to consider,” Chair Deborah Low said, calling it a theoretical look by the finance board.
Following last week’s discussion about the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the special education program, board members questioned whether putting aside $350,000 in reserve for SPED was adequate.
“The bottom line is we don’t have a clue on what the impact may be on our special ed group of students,” Hemmerle said.
On Tuesday, Smith proposed keeping an additional $169,000 in reserve for SPED legal costs on top of the $350,000 for SPED education services.
“Hopefully we’ll never need it,” Hemmerle said.
“It does give some wiggle room for us,” said Andrea Leonardi, assistant superintendent for special services.
“It its simplest form,” she said, the extra money might go toward direct services for students, as well as assessment costs.
“There may be a significant number of [new] referrals to special education as a result of this,” she said, “students who may be experiencing social and emotional trauma.”
As well, she said, “I would expect we would be doing some in-home services for some students,” possibly relating to health issues experienced by some students and their families.
“I actually am comfortable with that number because any number that’s not spent is going back to the town,” board member Gretchen Jeanes said.
Likewise, Smith is recommending that $350,000 be put in reserve for “unbudgeted COVID-19-related costs,” totaling $869,000 that would be reserved from the $3,000,561 surplus.
At the same time, Smith is recommending that $599,822 be encumbered for various items that were cut from his original budget proposal, and also $578,000 that would go toward purchasing the remainder of the district’s technology lease, totaling $1,177,822.
This would leave $953,739 that could directly be returned to the town at the end of the fiscal year.
“We’re shooting blind here,” Hemmerle said. “We just don’t have an idea of what coming back to school in the fall will be like.”
Low pointed out that should a flat budget be finalized, it could possibly result in a tax reduction for residents.
“We do want to collaborate and are collaborating with the town,” she said. “We understand it’s not business as usual ... and not budget as usual.”
The board will meet on Thursday night to vote on the plan.