Notes from the Board Table: Where the budget stands

by Bruce Likly, chairman

Wilton Board of Education

Work is well underway to develop an operating budget for the 2014-15 school year, and, as in previous years, the board faces the challenge of reconciling a desire to invest in innovative programs and technology against the realities of growing budget demands in the areas of contractual obligations, state unfunded mandates and special education services obligations. The board participated in a budget workshop last week, during which we engaged Superintendent Gary Richards, our building principals and other administrative officials about how to move our schools forward despite these daunting challenges.

As it stands right now, Dr. Richards’ budget calls for a 4.66% increase in overall spending. This number is higher than the 1.75% increase targeted by the Board of Finance, but reflects a decrease from the 5.42% increase outlined in the first draft of the budget Dr. Richards presented to the board in December.

The budget will certainly be subject to additional revisions and considerations before the board takes any final votes.  I think it is important though, to consider the proposal as it stands now, in light of the many factors contributing to the 4.66% increase.

Special education obligations are expected to increase next year by 9.65%. This year’s increases in special education are a result of numerous factors. These include providing services for students with complex learning and functional needs; additional supports as mandated per Individualized Educational Programs and increase in contracted specialized services. While mediations and outplacements have shown an increase, the overwhelming majority of students with special needs are educated in district with their typical peers.

Contractual obligations will increase by 2.3%. Contractual obligations include salaries and benefits, fuel costs, bus/transportation costs, legal fees, and any number of different responsibilities. As I’m sure you are aware, health care costs nationwide continue to escalate at an alarming rate, and while we did have some success at managing the increase by switching our teachers and administrators to a high-deductible plan, we will still face an estimated 5% increase.

The District Security Task Force has recommended investments totaling $332,000. The task force has undertaken an exhaustive study of security protocols in each of our buildings, and developed a list of recommendations ranging from an additional school resource officer, to increased mental health staffing.  We are hopeful that we can share some of these costs with the town, but as of now the costs are included in our operating budget.

Student participation fees have been removed from the draft budget. Parents will recall that for the current school year, the board imposed student activity fees on students participating in extra-curricular clubs and inter-scholastic athletics. Those fees are expected to generate $176,000 in additional revenue for the district this year. However, the fees were implemented on a “one-time-only” basis, with subsequent imposition subject to board approval. Therefore, the fees are not included in this current draft.

These are just a few of the drivers behind the 4.66% increase in Dr. Richards’ draft budget. But to be clear, the budget also includes some very positive expenditures that will move the district forward, and that are in tight alignment with our strategic plan and core values:

• Commitment to BOE Class Size Practices: The draft budget includes necessary staffing adjustments to meet BOE recommendations for class size averages of 18-20 students in K-1, and 20-22 students in all other grades. Please note however, that some classes at the high school will continue to exceed this recommendation, but those are advanced placement/honors courses taken by our most capable learners.

• Continued Investments in Technology: Technology of course is vital to a 21st Century education, and we will continue to make the investments to ensure that our classrooms are taking advantage of all appropriate innovations. This will include investments in iPad and Chrome Book carts, which have really changed the way instruction is taught, along with an investment in a foreign language lab at the high school.

We are, of course, very mindful that as it stands now, the budget exceeds the guidance offered by the Board of Finance. But it’s important to note that we are far from finished with our deliberations. At this point however, I thought it would be helpful to shed some insight on current “budget realities.”

Dr. Richards will present his budget request to the town at a public hearing scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 23, at 7 p.m. in the Middlebrook auditorium. I encourage all residents to come and listen, and to express any thoughts or questions.