Superintendent proposes 0% school budget increase

For the first time in more than 30 years, a 0% budget increase was proposed for the Wilton Public Schools when Superintendent Kevin Smith presented his request for an $80,569,905 school budget for 2017-18 during the Board of Education’s Jan. 12 meeting.

Although it does not reach the Board of Finance’s -1.25% budget growth guidance, Smith said the proposed budget is a reflection of the district’s effort to balance education needs and priorities with “the need to help the town manage its finances.”

“We have been working for months with the understanding that the Board of Finance and Board of Selectmen are trying to manage the mill rate increases, and we believe that as the largest consumer of taxpayer dollars, we need to be strong partners in that work,” said Smith.

“That being said, we also have committed to a pretty aggressive educational reform improvement agenda … so we need to ensure that we are meeting our priorities and maintaining a very high standard of public education here in Wilton.”

The budget was developed by Smith and district administrators in collaboration with the Board of Education’s Business Operations Committee, which has included members of the Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance.

Board of Education Chair Bruce Likly said he could not be more proud of them.

“I know it wasn’t easy,” said Likly. “I know you looked at class sizes. I know you looked at numbers of administrators. I know you looked at everything.”

The proposed budget breaks down as follows:

  • Salaries: 60.9% ($49,077,872).

  • Insurance and employee benefits: 17.1% ($13,797,579).

  • Professional services: 6.5% ($5,273,782).

  • Property services: 1.1% ($902,450).

  • Other purchased services: 11% ($8,920,242).

  • Supplies and materials: 2.7% ($2,215,020).

  • Equipment: 0.3% ($264,801).

  • Dues: 0.1% ($118,159).

Employee benefits and insurance, maintenance and operations, utilities, and student transportation would account for approximately $20.7 million, or a little more than 25%, of the total proposed operating budget.

Salaries and staff

The budget includes a 1% reduction in salaries for two reasons, said Smith. Not only does the district plan to cut 11.9 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff members, but there are also “a number of staff who are at the age of retirement,” he said.

“We’re anticipating that we’ll have a number of retirees who we’ll replace with younger, less experienced teachers,” Smith explained, “and those teachers come with a lower price tag.”

For 2017-18, the district plans to cut 6.82 FTE certified staff and 5.08 FTE non-certified staff.

The only staffing group without change is maintenance and custodial. However, Smith said, reductions would be considered in that area if the education board is required to make more cuts to the budget.

Special education

About $17.3 million, or approximately 21.5%, of the total proposed operating budget goes to special education, reflecting a 13% decrease over the district’s 2016-17 special education budget.

Smith’s budget also allocates $810,000 to out-of-district transportation and $3,545,200 to private tuition expenses.

Improvement project funding

The proposed budget would continue to fund the “great deal of improvement work” underway in the district, said Smith, including, but not limited to:

  • Five new high school courses.

  • A new Library Learning Commons instructional model.

  • Reconstruction of Wilton Evening School.

  • The redesign of preschool services.

“Of all the exciting work that’s going on,” said Smith, “I am probably most excited that we’re making a significant step forward with the introduction of our digital learning environment through a one-to-one ready-access program.”

The program is designed to provide a one-to-one environment for students beginning in third grade, said Smith, and a schema has been developed “by which we’ll be steadily providing devices to students.”

“We’ve heard from a number of our teachers and administrators about the growing use of Google and online tools,” said Smith.

“This one-to-one approach is going to be paradigm-shifting for us, so there’s funding in the budget to support that.”

Smith said he and his colleagues are “excited to continue the wonderful improvement that’s been going on [in the district] for several years” and the proposed budget “aims to do that without adding any dollar to the budget.”

Why not more?

“Why couldn’t more be cut?” is a “very philosophical” question,” Likly told The Bulletin.

“More can always be cut,” he said, “just like more can always be spent.”

While “some in town will think this budget is too lean and some will think it is too rich,” said Likly, it is ultimately up to the Board of Education, Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance to “develop an overall budget that they collectively feel is right for the town as a whole.”

“If we cut budgets too far, we cut services and weaken our competitive standing with surrounding towns, which hurts our property values and grand list, which then puts even greater pressure on our tax dollars,” he said. “It is a delicate balance.”

This story was updated Friday, Jan. 13.