Finance board sets 1.1% education budget growth target

With a four-to-one vote, the Board of Finance decided to set Board of Education’s operating budget guidance at approximately 1.1% — a decrease from the usual 1.75% annual growth target applied to both the Board of Education and Board of Selectmen — during its Sept. 15 meeting.
The decision stems from a concept based on student enrollment and per-pupil expenditure proposed by finance board member Jeff Rutishauser, who, along with board member Richard Creeth, has been working with the Board of Education’s Business Operations Committee to develop a new approach to the education budget’s annual growth target.
“It’s a little different than what we’ve done in the past,” Rutishauser said during the board’s July 21 meeting.
“The idea is to shift the basis upon which we make the budget [target] to the number of students, per-pupil growth expenditure and the combination of the two.
According to Rutishauser’s proposal, the main objective of the approach is to inform the finance board of “the future budget targets for the BOE, allowing it to plan accordingly in the face of what appears to be a significant and sustained decline in Wilton Public Schools enrollment.”
During the board’s July meeting, Rutishauser said student enrollment forecasts — prepared by certified accountant and actuary Ellen Essman, consulting firm Milone & MacBroom and Dr. Peter Prowda — all show “significant near-term decline in enrollment.”
There were 2,603 students enrolled in the school system in 1990, said Rutishauser, and this number increased to 4,334 by 2009. However, a gradual decline started after 2009. In fiscal year 2015, Wilton schools had 4,182 students — a 3.6% reduction from the 2009 peak.
“The trend towards declining enrollment is expected to continue in the next eight years — declining even faster than the previous seven years,” said Rutishauser.
“We are looking at a systematically large decline in the number of students. Each year, it doesn’t look like that much, but when you add them all up, it’s — by their forecasts — 17-28% fewer students just seven years out — with the trend line still going down.”
Rutishauser acknowledged that it would take “some effort to bring the budget down at the same rate as the number of students.”
“One of the issues that we’re dealing with is long-range planning,” he said, “and how to adjust the budget according to projection of enrollment that is basically getting smaller over the next several years.”

Board of Selectmen

As for the Board of Selectmen’s growth target, finance Board of Finance Chair Warren Serenbetz proposed a 0.75% growth target increase, while board member Al Alper proposed a 0.5% increase.
Finance board member Lynne Vanderslice said the Board of Selectmen’s spending is “just slightly more than what the 2014 budget was.”
“We took that ’14 budget and we built it up for [FY]15 and built it up again for [FY]16,” she said, “so I don’t think we can say the usual ‘let’s just do the standard percentage over,’ because it’s too high.”
Vanderslice noted that at its last meeting, the finance board talked about no longer “building up the surpluses.”
A 0.5% increase over the FY16 operating budget would give the selectmen $160,000 more for FY17, Vanderslice explained, “which is still $800,000 [more] than 2015.”
Vanderslice said the only reason she wouldn’t propose 0% is because “if you look at the capital budget that they submitted for 2017, it’s $2.5 million, which is $1 million higher than it normally is.”
“One thing that’s in there is a half-million dollars for the [turf] fields that we should have been funding all along,” said Vanderslice. “That’s the only caution I have.”
Creeth requested that the board wait until its Oct. 20 meeting to vote on the selectmen’s growth target, which the board agreed to do.