Board of Education: Public gives mixed reviews

A sparse crowd gathered Wednesday, March 27, in the Middlebrook School auditorium for a public hearing on the 2013-14 Wilton Board of Education proposed budget. The evening began with an opening statement and thoughts by the Board of Finance, with comments from board Chairman Warren Serenbetz, who outlined the highlights of the budget.

The specifics of the proposed budget were presented by Board of Education Chairman Bruce Likly. The fiscal year ’14 budget has been set at $76.890 million, a 3.83% increase from 2013.

“It’s not only our job to try to spend your tax dollars wisely, but it’s also our job to try to spend as few of those as possible,” Mr. Likly said. “Even though some of you may think that we just burn money, I believe we actually do a pretty good job of trying to cut costs where we can.

“I’m not going to stand here and tell you that I wouldn’t like to have lower taxes. I’m at the front of the line wanting lower taxes. We’ve put together a thoughtful budget that is carved as tightly as we can.”

Mr. Likly said the most significant gains in the budget are for salary increases, health benefits and outplacement costs.

“Things that we don’t have a lot of control over,” he said.

Of great concern are the needs of special education students. The impact on the overall budget is 22%, representing an 11.94% increase.

“We want the Board of Finance and the town to realize that we are listening,” added Mr. Likly. We’re trying to do what we can.”

With regard to the special education budget, Mr. Likly said the largest increases are in recommended staffing changes, contracted services, and outplacements, representing more than 8% of the 11.94%.

“We’ve spent time looking at the special education budget to try to understand how efficiently those dollars are being used, and from what I’ve seen, we should be proud of our district.”

The response from those commenting on the budget was mixed, with many voicing approval of the budget while others said they were displeased. Full-day kindergarten, still a hot topic around town, was also discussed in the public comment session.

Lisa Mannix, reading her speech from her tablet computer, spoke in favor of the budget.

“I stand here in support of the proposed school budget,” she said. She and her husband both hold master’s degrees and work in education. “We moved here six years ago. Like so many others, we made the decision to move to Wilton because of the schools. As a parent and educator, I support a budget that continues to improve our children’s literary foundation that best prepares them for learning in later grades.”

Margaret Feltz said she felt like she was on “The Price Is Right” as she approached the microphone — a light moment in the proceedings. Turning serious, she spoke highly in favor of the budget and its approach for special education.

“We truly believe that preschool services truly needs another teacher there. My son wasn’t much of a talker but he is learning and that is so important. He’s learning wonderful things from other students that have special needs.”

Katie Cunningham, who advocated against full-day kindergarten, said she was against the budget.

“It challenges my core beliefs to stand here tonight. I had never imagined advocating for rethinking or rejecting an increase in a school budget,” she said. “However, as it stands, I believe the Board of Finance must reject the current Board of Ed budget with the strong recommendation that full-day kindergarten be reconsidered given the long-term financial considerations it imposes.”

Marilyn Gould, who spoke at both of the public hearings, made her comments from a historical perspective.

“Over the years, the increase in budgets had often been due to enrollments increasing,” Ms. Gould said. “We’re not increasing, as I thought was the case, and yet our costs are going up.

“As far as full-day kindergarten is concerned, its value does not seem to have been proven and its actual costs have also not proven to be accurate. I think this is a program that is not ready for prime time and should not be put into the budget. This is not a time to just be adding for adding’s sake.”

One of the final speakers of the night, Ed Papp, gave praise to the Board of Education but also asked for other metrics.

“I’m encouraged and delighted and heartened to see many of the commenters used a lot of statistics,” he said. “They were very analytical in their review. The report is much more detailed. It’s nice to see numbers. But what are the results of the money that we’re spending? I’d like to see information that says our students are quantifiably better in the SATs and other tests that they are taking.”