If enrollment drops, why don’t expenses drop with it?

The Board of Finance joined the Board of Education in the Wilton High School Professional Library on Thursday, Feb. 25, to gain insight into the formation of the $81-million proposed school budget for fiscal year 2017.

The boards opened the workshop by addressing some of questions submitted by the finance board. The Q&A was then followed by general discussion, which entailed even more questions regarding enrollment, staffing, special education, and other influential factors of the proposed budget, which reflects a 1.27% increase over the current school budget.

While the Board of Finance expressed more concern about the budget in relation to its effect on taxpayers, the Board of Education’s main focus was on “providing the highest quality of education possible,” as Superintendent Kevin Smith said.

In his opening statement during the workshop, Board of Education Chair Bruce Likly said the proposed budget has “the unanimous support” of the education board and has been “more thoroughly vetted” than budgets in past years.

Likly said he not only believes the proposed budget “funds the needs of our schools for the 2016-17 school year,” but does so in a way that achieves efficiencies in several areas.”

He said it also expands the district’s goal of “delivering a ‘best in class’ education” to its students.

Although it recognizes that the Board of Finance “has a job to do,” Likly said, the education board “[took] issue” with some of its questions — ones that he said were “intended to make a point rather than to obtain information.”

He also urged the finance board to “refrain from using [the Board of Education’s] budget interactions as a venue for micromanaging the way we run our schools.”

Enrollment and staff

During its meetings, the Board of Finance has discussed declining enrollment in Wilton’s public schools — a topic that was naturally brought up during the budget workshop.

The finance board submitted at least seven different questions relating to enrollment, including why the proposed budget reflects a 1.27% increase when district-wide enrollment is down 99 students and why costs aren’t falling along with the enrollment decline and why staffing hasn’t been adjusted to the projected decline in students.

Likly said “short-term reductions do nothing to mitigate our fixed costs” and “having a few less students”  said Likly. “Having a few less students in each building does not change this.

In its response to the finance board, the education board explained that “many of the district’s costs are fixed and independent of student enrollment fluctuations” and “cost centers” like building heating and cooling, maintenance, electric and core staffing requirements “will remain constant and affected by inflation regardless of enrollment.”

Other cost increases, according to the education board, “are driven by contractual obligations,” such as a scheduled 2.57% teacher salary increase.

As for staff adjustments to student decline, the board responded that “core staffing requirements will not fluctuate with minor changes in enrollment.”

“The enrollment distribution over the next five years is spread across the entire district and it’s somewhere around 260-or-so students, and so what we’re looking at trying to do — and we’ve started to do this year — is in places where it’s obvious that we need fewer classroom teachers, we just go down a classroom teacher,” said Smith.

“The models that we’re putting together right now are examining all of those special area teachers. We fully expect that as we have fewer sections, we’ll need fewer teachers.”

Smith said over the next few years, the district will probably “either reduce staff wholly in the buildings or begin to share those special area staff across buildings.”

Special education

The Board of Finance submitted at least 16 questions relating to special education services, which account for 25% of the budget, and the District Management Council (DMC) Special Education & Struggling Students Opportunities Review, the results of which the board received last summer and included academic and cost-saving recommendations for the school district.

“The district administration stands fully behind that study and we are in the process of implementing a plan that aligns to those recommendations,” said Smith.

“It’s a multifaceted approach to reshape our system so we’re really efficiently providing high level of services to all of our kids.”

The DMC report highlighted $1,970,000 in potential savings for the district through a multi-year project. The Board of Finance asked the education board where these savings will appear, to which the education board responded that “the primary purpose” of the study was to “improve student learning outcomes, although it is certainly hoped that there will be cost savings over the period of full study implementation.”

According to the education board, the proposed budget eliminates five full-time equivalent special education paraprofessionals “as a step in more efficient student service delivery.”

In light of the DMC recommendations, the board added, “we continue our work of examining our service delivery models with an eye towards improved educational quality.”

The finance board noted that the DMC study noted “many staffing issues,” including the fact that the district has four psychologists when the national benchmark for a district Wilton’s size should be one. The education board explained that it is “in the process of examining efficient and effective use of psychologists’ time” and because the school psychologists perform “a number of duties,” it is “unlikely that the number of school psychologists could be reduced to one per building.”

With the proposed budget reflecting a $266,323 increase in special education transportation as a result of an increase in outplaced students, the finance board asked if there are ways to address students’ needs other than outplacing them.

According to Ann Paul, assistant superintendent of special services, the answer is no.

She said student outplacement is “a very weighty decision” for both families and the district that occurs for “children with very significant needs.”

While the district goes to “extraordinary measures to try and make it work for the kids here,” Paul said, “there are times when they’re not making progress or we feel that other students are unsafe.”

Paul said she is “very conscious” of outplacement costs, but Connecticut schools have “very few options” and can only send their students to state-approved schools.

Tough decisions

Board of Finance Chair Jeff Rutishauser said if the Board of Selectmen is able to come in with a 0% year-to-year budget increase, it could provide “some breathing room.”

However, Rutishauser said, “we don’t think we’re going to get a lot of savings from the current year to apply to next year.”

Rutishauser said he expects a “difficult year,” considering the little grand list growth, a “big jump in debt service” and last year’s 1.2% tax increase.

“We’re going to have some tough decisions. It’s not because we have preconceived notions or axes to grind — we just don’t have the money this year,” said Rutishauser.

In order to receive the support of the majority of Annual Town Meeting voters this May, Rutishauser said, “there are going to be tough decisions that have to be made.

Other areas addressed by the Board of Finance and Board of Education included per pupil expenditures, class sizes, technology, supplies, repairs, retirement plans and more — all of which can be viewed at http://bit.ly/1Upk0Jh.