Finance board questions school budget

The Board of Finance met with the Board of Education to review the recently updated proposed fiscal year 2019 (FY19) school budget on Tuesday, Feb. 13.

The budget originally proposed by Superintendent Kevin Smith has been increased from $82,168,952 to $82,376,563 at the Board of Education’s request to reinstate a social worker, a special education secretary, textbooks and online licenses, and an English language learner teacher.

The board also “instructed the administration to look for efficiencies,” said Board of Education Chair Christine Finkelstein, and professional learning and climate development spending was reduced.

With these changes, the proposed budget now reflects a 2.24% spending increase over current levels. This exceeds the 1% FY19 budget increase guidance the Board of Finance issued in October.

Financial burden

Finance board member Stewart Koenigsberg asked if the education board thought it was “fair” to “propose new costly programs for what has been described as “unmet needs,” considering external pressures faced by taxpayers.

“Wilton already has among the highest mill rates in the area,” said Koenigsberg, and “Hartford recently announced cutting funding for schools and increasing the burden on town taxpayers, and many residents will struggle with non-deductibility in real estate and income taxes.”

Smith said he does not believe the Board of Education has ignored such external pressures.

In fact, Smith said, he would argue that the recent budget “reflects those pressures” by “trying to find a balance between managing the state kicking the can, so to speak, and shifting the burden to municipalities, and also trying to proactively improve the quality of education here in Wilton for our students.”

“As an educator, we’re making the right choices. Expensive ones, but I continue to be concerned about this climate and the potential for the degradation of our school system, because that would further enhance the negative economic spiral that some of us think we’re in,” he said.

While he believes Smith and the education board have “a very clear understanding of the difficulties the town is going through,” Koenigsberg said, he also knows people are “feeling quite stressed” about the new federal tax bill and their home values.

“I think as we talk about this, that is certainly the context,” he said.

Preschool program

Board of Finance Chair Jeff Rutishauser said a number of finance board members have raised concerns about the district’s new preschool program.

“A year ago we talked about the incremental costs,” said Rutishauser.

“We’re here a year later asking, How much does it cost? How many students do we have? What did we charge? What did we collect? Let’s get to the real numbers of what we have in school today, and, most importantly, Are we collecting the revenue that we said we would collect a year ago?”

Chief Financial Officer Anne Kelly-Lenz said three preschool classrooms were originally budgeted for 2017-18. By September, she said, enrollment exceeded expectations and a fourth class had to be added.

“It went up to 54 children — of that, 26 were typical and 28 were SPED [special education],” she said. As a result, a fourth classroom was added by reallocating resources.

In January, Kelly-Lenz said, preschool enrollment rose to 73 students as a result of students aging into the program. Forty-one were in special education.

“At that point, we had five classrooms,” said Kelly-Lenz, “so we took a look at the budget to see what we were charging typical kids to come into the program and if we could even afford to [add a] classroom to support an increase in typicals.”

Tuition is $7,000 for five days a week, with an option for 4-year-olds to stay until 3:30 on Tuesdays and Thursdays for an additional $1,000.

After discovering that adding typical students makes the program profitable, a fifth classroom was added.

“The revenues to date for those typicals is $172,000 that we have actually collected, with the potential of another $20,000 to come in,” Kelly-Lenz said.

“What I saw happening is we get enrollments in the beginning of the year and in 2017-18, nine to 10 kids [typical students] either dropped out or were identified as SPED kids, so we lose that revenue.”

“It’s hard to balance that revenue side because once a child gets in, they can actually be identified as SPED.”

When it comes to the 2018-19 budget, Kelly-Lenz said, there are five teachers for five classrooms, an administrator to oversee the whole program, eight paraprofessionals, and one secretary.

In the budget, the preschool teachers are reflected as 4.8 full time equivalent (FTE) rather than 5 FTE, and the administrator is reflected as 0.11 FTE rather than 0.5 FTE  because a small grant is covering part of those costs.

In the proposed 2018-19 budget, the preschool program is budgeted at $150,000, which Kelly-Lenz said, “more than covers the program right now with having typical kids in there.”

DMC report

With respect to the District Management Council (DMC) study conducted for the school district in 2015, finance board member Walter Kress expressed concern about “the efficient delivery of appropriate services to those truly in need.”

“There are a number of suggestions that were made by the [DMC] and I haven’t seen … a detailed analysis of what’s been done to date, cost savings, changes, what’s being worked on today with specific timelines associated with those and, ideally, some representation of cost or savings,” said Kress.

Kress said he believes this detailed analysis needs to be done “thoroughly” so the DMC report can be “put behind us.”

“Special needs represents one-sixth of this town’s total budget. It’s a very significant piece and it happens to be one of fastest-growing pieces that we’re all wrestling with,” he said.

Three recommendations made by the DMC, Smith said, had to do with “efficiency and reducing staff based on some assumptions.”

“Some of the assumptions built into their recommendations were things like if we increase contact time between related service providers and students, we’ll be more efficient; if we streamline paperwork, we’ll be more efficient; if we increase group sizes, we’ll be more efficient,” he said.

“All those things on their face make a lot of sense,” he said, but the reason such changes haven’t been seen is not due to “lack of interest.”

“I think in whatever comparisons DMC made to their national database, they did misread the climate here in making those statements,” said Smith. “That being said, I want you to understand that we have made changes.”

Smith said some of the changes, such as reducing kindergarten paraprofessionals, actually preceded the DMC recommendations. The district has also been able to “come down in OT services.”

However, Smith said, he isn’t sure the district will be able to “come down to the levels proposed by the DMC” because he doesn’t think they “had [the district’s] context just right.”

PPTs is an area that “really drives a lot of staffing time” in Wilton schools, said Smith. “In this climate, there is a very high demand for services, and that manifests itself in a number of ways,” he said, such as referral requests.

“We have a high number of referrals for special education,” he said. “We conduct comprehensive evaluations — that takes a lot of time — and then we have a lot of PPT [planning placement team] meetings.”

During PPT meetings, Smith explained, service providers and families go through goals and objectives related to individualized education programs (IEPs).

Over the last couple of years, Smith said, the district has “made efforts … to reduce the total number of PPTs” and has seen those numbers drop “pretty dramatically.”

“We’ve also made efforts to reduce the amount of time spent per PPT and the number of staff present at the PPT with the purpose of getting our service providers back in front of kids,” he said.

“We also continue to scrutinize the schedules and group sizes — primarily with OT, PT and speech and language service providers. The net result there is we have been able to step away from those meeting requirements.”

“What we haven’t been able to do to the magnitude proposed by the DMC is peel back on the required number of staff.”

Smith said that’s an area the district continues to look at.

The boards will continue to address and discuss questions from the finance board Wednesday, Feb. 21, at 7:30 p.m. in the Wilton High School Professional Library.

The Board of Education is slated to vote on the budget the following day.