Wilton finance board agrees to fund alternative school

Trackside Teen Center, 15 Station Road. — Kendra Baker photo
Trackside Teen Center, 15 Station Road. — Kendra Baker photo

The Board of Finance voted to approve $468,000 through Charter Authority to fund the proposed alternative high school program at a special meeting on Tuesday, April 23.

The funding would cover the cost of the initial year of the program.

The motion that passed was worded as an “intent” by the finance board to approve $468,000 for the program.

Should voters at the ATM on May 7 (and adjourned town meeting vote) vote to cut the town or school budgets, the finance board has reserved the right to decide not to go forward with funding the program.

The Charter Authority budget line contains $1,255,321 — $313,830 under the jurisdiction of the Board of Selectmen and $941,491 under the jurisdiction of the Board of Finance.

The idea to fund the alternative school program through Charter Authority funds was initially proposed by First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice and Board of Education Chair Christine Finkelstein at the finance board’s meeting on April 16, following the finance board’s previous decision to cut $1,107,044 from the education budget request.

Because the alternative school program is a new initiative, it is one of the items up for consideration to be cut. The school board has not yet voted on the budget cuts it plans to make.

The program was developed by Andrea Leonardi, Wilton’s assistant superintendent of special services, for students in seventh through 12th grade. Classes will be held at Trackside Teen Center. Approximately 20 to 25 students are expected for the first year, said Schools Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith at the meeting.

The program is designed to include students who are currently outplaced and students who may seek outplacement in the future.

Presenting the funding proposal in detail Tuesday night, Vanderslice told the finance board, “You have an opportunity to do something that is both good for our town and our students and which will reduce or avoid costs next year and in the future.”

She said special education outplacement and settlement spending is the largest financial risk to the Board of Education budget. “The 10-year growth rate for special education outplacements and settlements is 10 times the growth rate of total Board of Education spending,” she said.

It currently costs between $75,000 and $110,000 per outplacement of each student, according to Vanderslice. The budgeted cost for the alternative school program — $468,000 — is the cost equivalent of approximately five outplacements.

When proposing the program to the school board last year, Leonardi said there were 18 Wilton students outplaced by planning and placement teams (PPT) and 14 outplaced by parents unilaterally — an annual cost to the district of approximately $2,240,000.

“The financial risk for running the program, in my opinion, is lower than the risk of not funding it,” Vanderslice  told the finance board.

Finkelstein called the program a “cost-effective opportunity” to service some of the district’s most vulnerable students.

The $468,000 cost is broken down as $382,000 for staff and related costs; $36,000 for transportation; and $50,000 for rental of the Trackside facility. Vanderslice said she has spoken to the chairman of the Trackside board to take another look at the $50,000 rental fee.

Positive comments

The finance board vote was 5 to 0 in favor of the $468,000 allocation. Board member Stewart Koenigsberg was absent.

The members who voted all had positive comments about the program.

“I think you’ve done a great deal of work and preparation for it, and it’s very well thought out. What we have heard from parents, they are really crying out to have this program,” said John Kalamarides.

Ceci Maher said she could not be more in favor of the proposal, and understands the impact of children trying to fit into a system that doesn’t fit for them. The proximity for parents, the fact the child does not have to leave town, grounding and community are important, she said.

Walter Kress said he has supported the alternative school ever since the previous triboard meeting with the selectmen and school board. He said he knows a couple of families whose children may use the program.

“Anything that can help save money for the town in a thoughtful way, we should be doing all day long,” said Peter Balderston, who praised Leonardi for developing the program.

Board chair Jeff Rutishauser said anything the board can do to arrest and slow down the growth curve of special education costs deserves a shot. “This could slow down the fastest-growing part of our budget, on both sides, board of education and board of selectmen,” he said.