More praise than complaints at school budget hearing

A smaller crowd than last year gathered in the Middlebrook School auditorium on Monday, March 20, for the Board of Finance’s public hearing on the proposed $80,569,905 Board of Education budget for fiscal year 2018 (FY18), which reflects a 0% increase over the current school budget.

The Board of Finance had directed the district to present a budget reflecting a 1.25% cut.

The lower turnout may have been due to the fact that it was the first time a Wilton education budget hearing was being streamed live online.

Board of Education Chairman Bruce Likly presented the budget, saying the district is “not asking for a penny more this year than [it] spent last year.”

Board of Finance Chair Jeff Rutishauser explained that prior to the mill rate deliberations, the total funds the town requires are up about $2.2 million over last year.

The education board’s flat budget is “significantly below larger Board of Education increases of past years,” said Rutishauser, and “for that, we commend the board and Dr. [Kevin] Smith, superintendent of Wilton Public Schools.”

Rutishauser said the budget also reflects a “continued decline in enrollment as Millennials finally pass through the school system and a smaller generation follows them.”

“It will be a management challenge for the Board of Education to adjust staffing and services to this declining enrollment,” he said, “and to plan for this reality until enrollment stabilizes and turns around in the future.”

Rutishauser also noted that:

  • Moody’s reaffirmed Wilton’s AAA bond rating;

  • Pensions are funded at 91% of liabilities, leaving a $9.9 million net liability;

  • Other tax revenues are down $850,000 — “largely due to the elimination of the educational cost sharing grant of $1.2 million,” he said. “This year, it will be zero.”

Public comments

The majority of the evening, however, was devoted to public comments, for and against the spending plan.

First up was Alex Ruskewich, who said that according to his research “Wilton is third in the state in the amount per capita spending on the budget.”

Referencing a soft real estate market, he said he thought one of the reasons people are losing money when selling their homes is because of taxes. “You become non-competitive,” he said.

He questioned specifically the amount of money budgeted for school psychologists, which he said is four times the national average. He also brought up a “study done by the school, which recommended after a fee of about $200,000, that you reduce some of the people that you had in there and you haven’t reduced. You have the same number

“When you say you can’t save money, these are some of the areas where I think you can.”

Additionally, he brought up the question of legal expenses, saying the district spent more than $300,000 fighting Freedom of Information requests. He suggested the Board of Education do as the Board of Selectmen did and seek bids for legal counsel.

A parent of a special education student took issue with Ruskewich’s claim that school spending is driving taxes to an untenable level. “We need to make the investments to make businesses want to come into this town instead of squabbling over a 0% budget,” he said.

Deborah McFadden of Westport Road said she also liked that Wilton’s request is the lowest in the DRG-A.

According to one of the slides shown during the budget presentation, other DRG-A districts have requested the following budget increases for FY18:

  • New Canaan: 3.80%

  • Ridgefield: 3.48%.

  • Weston: 2.79%.

  • Westport: 2.44%.

  • Region 9: 2.33%.

  • Easton/Redding: 2.12%.

  • Darien: 2.08%.

Tamarack Place resident Tom Curtin praised the education board for “doing a great job,” but said he also believes there is room for cuts to be made in the proposed budget. Citing the possibility Wilton will have to pay $4 million toward statewide teacher pension costs he said, “in this environment there should be no [pay] increases.”

On the other hand, Indian Hill Road resident Lorayne McCabe and Hurlbutt Street resident Kevin Meehan asked that no cuts be made.

“To the Board of Finance, I respectfully say that I support our schools and I believe that any additional cuts are risky and potentially dangerous to our children. I support the budget as it stands,” said McCabe, who has two children currently enrolled at Wilton High School and two who graduated.

“I’d also like to say that we’re asking for a 0% increase, and to those of you who have raised your children here and whose children went through the school system, please allow our children the same advantages that your children had. I know that I will.”

Meehan, a science teacher at Cider Mill, said he knows the fiscal environment in town is “bad” and “ugly,” but budget cuts hit the school district hard.

“I’ve been in the school district for 20 years teaching. These cuts are deep,” he said. “They’re changing how we teach; it’s changing the quality of what we’re trying to do.”

Meehan said if the school budget were cut 1.25% — which the Board of Finance had set as guidance — the schools wouldn’t be “serving our kids.”

Kevin Hickey questioned outplacement costs asking “why are we spending $165,000 per student for outplacement?”

Perhaps most disturbing were allegations made by Sarah Curtis who questioned just how well students were being served.

“I watched a high school child walk in their house, melt into tears and say I give up, I can’t do this anymore, I can’t get the help I need, my teacher won’t help me.” Another parent, she said, described their student as “absolutely demoralized.”

“No student in the town of Wilton should have to drop out of their extracurricular activities … because their teacher has told them I’m not allowed to help you. It’s up to you … but here’s a tutor you can go to.

“You have kids who are coming home from our school who are demoralized, losing their confidence, who are giving up what they love to do after school and who are giving up what they thought they would become because they are being told no, we won’t help you, we won’t give you the answer, you figure it out yourself.”

Clearly disturbed by her testimony, Likly asked her to share specifics with him, saying he wanted to “get to the bottom” of her claims.

Staffing reductions

Likly said the district is reducing staff in line with declining enrollment, which is projected to be around 4,042 next year.

“If you look at salaries, contractually, they are 75% of our total budget costs — they’re only going up 3% per year, so it’s about $1.5 million that our salaries are going up next year before we do anything,” he said.

Transportation costs will go up about $75,000 next year, benefits by about 1.7%, and cost-per-student by about 1%.

That is all happening, Likly said, because the district is making staffing reductions.

The proposed school budget drops certified staff by 6.82 full-time equivalents (FTE) and non-certified staff by 5.08 FTE. Overall, the budget reflects a 0.95% reduction in staff salaries.

Classroom changes

Even though the budget is flat, Likly said, he is “still incredibly proud of where we’re headed.”

“We’re still investing in people — they’re not only our greatest cost, but our greatest asset. When you look at our staff and how long they’ve been with us, we are truly blessed,” he said.

“We have staff members who have been with us 20, 30 — maybe more years than that. That also means they got out of college 20 or 30 years ago. Teaching expertise [and] the teaching rubric [are] changing, and kids are changing.”

Students of today, he said, are different from those years ago.

“There’s so much happening now [and] we’ve got to move our entire staff toward understanding that and being able to leverage it.”

When he first joined the Board of Education, Likly said, “we had less than a handful of SMARTBoards and no plans to have computers with every teacher, computers in every classroom — oh, my word — computers in the hands of every student.”

“Well, that’s what we’re looking at today,” he said. “Virtually every classroom has a SMARTBoard; every classroom is tied to the Internet; every classroom is interconnected with every other corner of the world.”

Wilton currently has a French teacher who “routinely teaches class with a class in France,” said Likly, “and the kids in the French class at Cider Mill communicate back and forth with a French class in France.

“That’s amazing. Think of the impact of that,” he said. “We’ve got to get every teacher thinking that way and taking it even further so that we can expand on that.”

When students think about the careers that they’re going to have, Likly said, “statistics show that the careers that they’re going to take on don’t even exist today. That’s how fast our world is changing.”

Universal Design for Learning

Likly said the district is looking to implement a new coaching model called the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) “to try to move teachers and help teachers move to an advanced level of education that didn’t exist when they came out of college.”

The UDL is “an approach to curriculum design that can help teachers customize curriculum to serve all learners, regardless of ability, disability, age, gender, or cultural and linguistic background” by providing “a blueprint for designing strategies, materials, assessments, and tools to reach and teach students with diverse needs.”

“The Universal Design for Learning is something that is just being talked about amongst our teachers. It’s the next generation of where we’re headed,” said Likly.

“The old classroom of a teacher standing in front [of students] is outdated. We need to change and adapt so we give our kids the best chances possible.”

The coaching model, which is “not fully implemented and not fully embraced yet,” said Likly, is part of that.

“It’s bringing professional learning into the classroom every day of the week instead of six days a year for a couple of hours when parents have to find additional support for their kids or change their work schedules,” he said.

“It’s also requiring us to rewrite our curriculum, and we’ve got an aggressive curriculum review and revitalization projects in place with [Assistant Superintendent] Chuck Smith in every grade and every class [and] we’re working to rebuild where we’re headed with curriculum.”

Likly said he “firmly” believes in the proposed FY18 school budget.

“I believe we’re spending the right amount of money in the right places. My kids are in the system. I believe in the system,” he said. “I believe this is one of the best school districts in the country, and we’re going to prove it.”

The proposed budget is available here, and Likly encouraged anyone with questions to reach out to and ask.

Click here to view the Board of Education's budget presentation slideshow.

(This story has been edited to reflect additional public comments.)