Education budget raises concerns at public hearing

Members of the public voiced more concerns than praise at the Monday, March 24, education budget public hearing.

After meeting and analyzing, the Board of Education submitted its budget of $79,151,125 to the Board of Finance. This represents an increase of $3,011,020, or 3.95%, over the previous year.

“Our schools are very good, but they are keeping the values of houses up in this town,” said Calvin Road resident Alex Ruskewich. “People are not moving in because of the fact the taxes are too high. We’re losing people.”

Michael Graupner, of Signal Hill Road, voiced his concerns about Wilton’s elderly.

“We sometimes forget that our elderly, who have lived here 30-40 years, continue to pay taxes and really get nothing out of it,” Mr. Graupner said to the finance and education board members.

Mr. Graupner said adding on to the budget each year creates a problem for Wilton’s older citizens who receive Social Security.

“I never feel that that’s really addressed by this group,” he said to the board members.

Walnut Place resident Ed Papp said he would like to know what percent of the education budget is attributable to student programs.

“I think if you look at it from a large perspective, you will clearly understand that you’re not offering programs to our students — you’re just offering more salaries to the teachers,” he said to the board.

Approximately 40 to 50 people gathered inside the Middlebrook School auditorium for the 7:30 p.m. public hearing. They heard that, based on school and municipal budgets as presented, the mill rate could increase 3.6%. The Board of Finance will meet April 1 at 7:30 p.m. in Room B at town hall to consider changes to the mill rate. The meeting is open to the public.

Budget presentation

“While I am a fiscal conservative and believe that numbers are always too high, I also understand that quality has a price,” Board of Education Chair Bruce Likly said in presenting some of the education budget details.”

He said complying with state mandates is one of the key considerations in the Board of Education’s budget process.

“There are a lot of mandates out there that people don’t realize,” he said, including:

  • Busing;
  • Providing special education services;
  • Teacher evaluation plans;
  • Student success plans;
  • Free lunches;
  • Standardized testing.

“They’re all mandates, and they’re all very, very expensive,” said Mr. Likly.

Budget breakdown

Salaries account for 59.9% of the total budget, with salary increases for existing staff being the biggest driver at $949,860, a bit less than a third of the 3.95% requested increase.

“We anticipate salaries will be slightly under budget this year, but higher next year,” said Mr. Likly. “It’s under budget this year because we had more retirements than we anticipated in non-certified staff, and they were replaced with less costly staff.”

Mr. Likly said 2.6% of salary increases are due to contractual requirements.

“We have a very senior and very qualified staff — they’re also very expensive when they retire,” he said.

Employee benefits account for 18.9% of the total budget.

“Our health benefits are only projected to go up by 0.5%. This is pretty incredible,” said Mr. Likly. “We changed to a contribution-based health care plan and that’s had a big impact.”

Contracted services, outplacements and equipment account for 12.4% of the budget.

“Special education outplacement costs are due to rising tuition costs of outplaced students,” said Mr. Likly.

At $616,739, outplacement tuition makes up about one-fifth of the 3.95% budget increase.

Special education

While general education represents 42% and security represents about 8%, special education represents 50% of the total budget increase.

“Special education increased 8.78% from 2013-14. The largest part of this is based on outplacement tuition,” said Mr. Likly.

Mr. Likly said the Board of Education is forecasted to be over budget this year “solely by factors outside of the town’s control.”

“We don’t have any control over who shows up to go to school, and sometimes it’s a challenge,” he said.

Mr. Likly said the special education excess cost grant reimburses school districts for “the reasonable costs of special education for a student who lives in the district that exceeds 4.5 times the district’s cost per pupil expenditure for the previous year.”

He said the state typically reimburses the district at a 25-35% discount of what it applies for.

“So if we ask for $1 million … then they give us around $650,000 or $750,000, and that goes back to the town fund,” said Mr. Likly.

According to Mr. Likly, special education staffing is currently provided by “costly contracted services.”

“By hiring full-time staff members, we have the opportunity to realize cost savings and have kids in their home school environment,” said Mr. Likly.

Special education audit

Joe Brenner, of Indian Hill Road, asked the Board of Finance to look at special education services.

“Should the most expensive, fastest-growing components of the entire Board of Education budget be the subjects of the most transparency?” he asked. “I think every enterprise has the responsibility of understanding extraordinary increases in spending, and then explaining its reasons to its stakeholders.”

Such examinations are normally performed by audit teams, said Mr. Brenner.

When it comes to “processes in special services, especially those that are driving the annual double-digit increases that we’re looking at here in Wilton,” said Mr. Brenner, “an audit would be especially valuable.”

The reason for doing such an audit, said Mr. Brenner, would not just be for the taxpayers, compliance with the law, integrity of controls and audibility and financial confidence of the community.

“We do it for the special education students, who are part of our most important asset,” said Mr. Brenner. “I don’t believe schools are Wilton’s priority asset; I believe the children are.”