Wilton superintendent hopes to hold budget increase to 3% or less

WILTON — The pandemic of 2020 may have an influence on next year’s budget, but Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith said some of the lessons learned this past year could ultimately help improve instruction.

Smith presented his administrative goals to the Board of Education on Dec. 3, and also provided an abbreviated draft of his district goals, which he said he would be sharing in more detail privately with board members through a written draft via email, owing to time constraints.

Among his hopes for the coming year is that he’ll be able to present a budget proposal for the 2021-22 school year that would not show an increase above 3 percent at the most.

“I feel confident that we’ll be able to achieve that goal,” he said, noting the range of unbudgeted expenditures that have been necessitated by the pandemic, including unexpected staff additions and protective supplies.

He said it could possibly go as low as being a flat proposal, but it’s still a work in progress.

“This year is extraordinary [and] we’re playing very close attention to our budget,” he said, noting his office continues to stay on top of potential state and federal reimbursements.

With that in mind, he explained the district’s intention — as in years past — is to meet the broad range of academic and extracurricular needs of student, but this year with a renewed focus on social and emotional wellness.

“It has been and it remains today our chief focus to develop the social and emotional well-being of our kids,” he said, noting the tragic suicide of a Wilton High School student this past year.

While the board did not vote on implementing a mental health screening the administration proposed last month — hoping to do so at its next meeting — Smith referenced several other initiatives underway with a focus on mental and emotional health.

Along with working with Silver Hill Hospital on several fronts, he said he has consulted with Dr. Stephen Xenakis — a retired brigadier general, psychiatrist and Defense Department adviser who has worked extensively with detainees at Guantanamo Naval Base. He said Xenakis proposed the creation of a “broad-based awareness campaign” in town that would involve various community organizations highlighting a focus on “caring.”

“We would invite every community organization to join and as part of that just recommit to their efforts that are already underway,” he said, with the initiative creating activities around the theme and highlighting resources to “help foster connection among every segment of the Wilton community.”

“I think it’s an opportunity to really do some good for everybody who lives here,” Smith said, noting it was still in the early planning stages but could have far-reaching impact.

Regarding mental and emotional health, Vice Chair Glenn Hemmerle pointed out that among Smith’s written goals for the district, he should be highlighting attention on the well-being of staff.

“I don’t see that here,” he said, though he believed the work was being done to help staff, particularly as it relates to the pandemic operations.

“I think we have a number of teachers out there who are really struggling, the way our students are struggling, and I think we should try and develop some way of helping them,” he said.

“I’m not saying that [you’re] not. Don’t get me wrong. But I just think we need to highlight [it],” he said, and make it part of the written objectives for next year.

Smith, who said he appreciated the comment, noted there were good support networks in place within each building for staff, as well as at the district level.

“A lot of folks have expressed concern about working,” he said, noting the district was trying to handle each situation on a case-by-case basis, given the extraordinary circumstances of this time.

“Just verbalize it,” Chair Deborah Low told Smith, citing “a tremendous amount of effort” that the district has put toward caring for its staff.

“Let’s just make it more public perhaps … more visible,” she said.

“I would like to see that as part of your objectives,” Hemmerle said.

Good news

Part of the good news from this extraordinary year, Smith explained, may be that they’re “able to leverage some of the lessons from the pandemic,” including use of virtual learning tools as a means of instructing certain students who were particularly responsive to it.

“We want to make sure that we have opportunities to respond to those kids where our more traditional structure didn’t work, [if] we can serve those kids better,” he said.

He said some districts in other countries have already modified their instructional approach based on this experience, explaining there were lessons that could be garnered for Wilton.

Still, he said, it remained unclear what the academic impacts will be on students moving forward, particularly in the area of math, which generally seems to be taking more of a hit through distance learning.

He said there could be financial implications addressing deficiencies, with needed interventions or support, but those questions were still yet to be answered.

“I just think, in setting up the conversation, it’s important to name again that this has been an unbelievably challenging school year,” Smith said.

“At this point we’re just not clear what we’re going to see,” he said.