Wilton schools show $3M surplus, cannot cut budget more than 1.5%
WILTON — Though it’s looking at a $3-million surplus in its current operating budget, at this point the Board of Education is not sure how much of that it will return to the town at the end of the fiscal year.
At its Thursday night meeting, the board also heard from Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith that, though the Board of Finance has requested it present budget scenarios for next year reflecting 5- and 10-percent reductions, current state statute actually makes it legally impossible for the town to appropriate less than around $81.2 million next year, which only amounts to a 1.5-percent reduction over the current $82.3-million operating budget.
“You can’t spend less than you did you the year before, essentially,” Smith said, explaining the requirements of the state’s “Minimum Budget Requirement” law.
While the top 10-percent performing districts are potentially exempt from the law, a performance gap related to student participation in the district in science, he said, resulted in a technicality that keeps Wilton from an exemption.
“We’re talking about a handful of students … who didn’t participate in the test,” he said, “so we didn’t hit the 95-percent participation … So what that means is we are not exempt from MBR.”
He noted that other comparable districts, including Weston and Westport, were likewise unable to qualify for the exemption for various reasons.
For Wilton, failure to comply with the MBR would result in the state withholding up to $470,000 in Education Cost Sharing, and could also impact grant money as well.
Anne Kelly-Lenz, chief financial officer, said $81,150,066 is the lowest school budget the town could adopt for the 2020-21 school year, according to state officials.
“It could change, but not too significantly,” she said.
School board members agreed it was futile to create plans for 5- and 10-percent reductions, but asked Smith to return Tuesday, May 5, with an “MBR” budget, reflecting that number.
Kelly-Lenz, meanwhile, shared details on the $3,000,561 spending surplus due to the current budget freeze, including $787,268 in personnel costs, $434,497 in utilities, and $393,740 in transportation.
At Kelly-Lenz’s recommendation, Smith is suggesting that of that $3 million, $350,000 be reserved for unplanned special education costs and $350,000 be reserved in the event of a COVID-19 recurrence in the fall.
“We’re just beginning scenario planning for next year and right now we’re imagining a wide range of possibilities if school opens,” he said, including potential closures, safety costs or even requirements to continue e-learning with certain students on a case-by-case basis.
Smith also recommended that $599,822 be encumbered for the pre-spending of budget items previously cut, and that $578,000 be encumbered for technology items, including Chromebooks, leaving $1,122,739 to be returned to the town.
“I don’t think the SPED (special education) reserve is adequate,” Vice Chair Glenn Hemmerle said. “I would like to see that no less than $500,000.”
“It’s a great unknown,” he said, noting it could be a challenging area and result in a range of new costs, including legal.
Andrea Leonardi, assistant superintendent for special services, concurred.
“There’s absolutely no way to know … No one’s had a past experience with pandemics that have shut down school for months,” she said.
“Wilton currently doesn’t have an unexpected funds account,” Smith said, so the money needs to be returned to the town unless its earmarked for specific usage.
“Under this plan… we would have to go to the board of selectmen and request that these funds be reserved,” Chair Deborah Low said.
Members raised the question of whether it wouldn’t be prudent to just hold on to more funds, if possible.
“If we’ve got the money reserved and we don’t spend it, it can still go back to the town,” member Gretchen Jeanes said.
“There are some expenses we have no idea about,” Low said, in relation to the COVID-19 crisis.
Smith outlined suggested cuts in a zero-increase scenario, including cutting $662,000 in building repairs that would include deferring the first phase of the Middlebrook School project.
“I’m a little uncomfortable with the pre-spend,” said member Mandi Schmauch, wanting to be sure of the prudence of advance spending.
“I just want to make sure we’re not pre-spending because we have some of this money,” she said.
At the same time, Schmauch said more information was needed on the importance of getting the building repairs done, as it could be imprudent to delay them another year or possibly longer.
“These are hard choices,” Smith said, noting his recommendations were open to change by the board.
“There’s no need right now to decide any of this,” Low said, asking Smith to return with a reduction for the MBR scenario on Tuesday, at which time the board would look closer at the building repairs and how much money it would ultimately send back to the town.