Wilton superintendent: Litigation and special education costs need to be watched

School officials have begun looking at how enrollment, special education and litigation costs will play out with the next budget.

School officials have begun looking at how enrollment, special education and litigation costs will play out with the next budget.

Jeannette Ross / Hearst Connecticut Media

WILTON — Now that there may be light at the end of the long tunnel of the coronavirus pandemic, school officials have begun looking at how things will play out with the next budget.

“There are some differences for this year that I want to call out right now,” Kevin Smith, superintendent of schools, told the Board of Education on Thursday night at its last regular meeting of 2020.

In particular, questions surround enrollment, as well as how the needs for — and cost of — special education services will play out.

Statewide and nationally, Smith said, questions of increased litigation relating to the past year, as well as costs for compensatory services, are being watched closely by everyone.

“We need to monitor along those lines,” he said.

“As the pandemic comes to a close, my office is going to get busy,” said Andrea Leonardi, assistant superintendent for special services.

She said the state Department of Education — and at least one federal agency — will make determinations as to what will define needs and achievement following the unusual 2020-21 school year, and how individual districts are supposed to cope with them.

“We’re still waiting for some guidance,” she said.

“Likely what we’re going to see, and what we’ve begun to see … is litigation is going to answer these questions,” Leonardi said, with exactly how the district ends up framing related legal requirements for special-needs students yet to be determined.

She said additional services would probably be targeted for the summer months, and could carry over for two years.

“There’s not going to be a lot of time to add (services),” she said, once school returns to full-time.

“I’m not sure that adding more instruction very late in the day, or in the mornings, is going to work out,” she said.

Asked exactly what additional services will be needed — and to what extent — officials said it was too early to tell.

“I don’t think we really know yet,” Smith said.

Separately, he highlighted the potential for learning loss among all students, with mathematics an area that’s been of special concern.

“We’re really prioritizing mathematics instruction … and trying to expand some intervention services in a variety of ways,” he said.

Regarding enrollment, Smith said it already looked like close to 40 students who were not taught by the district this year will be returning, with more possibly to follow.

“We know that we had 160-some-odd kids opt for either home schooling or private school,” he said, because of the pandemic.

While not everyone has responded to a survey sent out to both groups, he said “about 30 of the students who are presently being home schooled are planning on returning.”

Eight students from the 25 families who responded to the survey sent to those now in private school said they would be returning.

“We don’t have complete responses yet, (but) we’ll continue to refine that as more information comes in,” Smith said.

“We’re feeling good where we are with the vaccines and whatnot, so we are anticipating that our schools will be running at full capacity,” he said.

Other items that may play into budget assumptions include facilities — in particular a re-examination of the Middlebrook School renovation project, which may require more work than was previously expected.

“We may need to go and approach this a different way,” he said, noting there could be a number of items in the building that demand additional scrutiny.

He referenced an instance of moisture supposedly creeping into a floor area, which would demand a two-ply sealant being placed over the cement when that floor section is redone.

“That’s an additional significant cost,” he said.

“I think we have to go back and look at this building a little more carefully,” he said.

Smith also said he wanted to keep both a kindergarten and a fifth-grade teacher that were hired for this year, in part to help keep class sizes smaller as it might help improve instruction next year in relation to unknown needs.

“I think the board needs some time to just contemplate these assumptions,” Chair Deborah Low said. “My observation is that many of them are COVID-related.”

“Obviously we’ll be hearing more, but any board members that have questions or comments, or want specifics, please email Kevin so we can talk about them again at our next meeting,” she said, which is scheduled for Jan. 7.