Wilton school budget increase drops to 3.83%

After trimming $410,000 from its proposed budget, the Board of Education presented a revised operating budget of $76,890,105 to the Board of Finance on Monday, Feb. 11. This budget represents a total increase of $2.8 million over the current fiscal year’s budget, or 3.83%.

Sixty-four percent of that increase occurs in the special education budget, which is 22% of the total budget. The special education portion of the budget increased 11.94%; without special education the board showed a budget increase of 1.75%.

Special education costs are driven by state and federal law and caseload, according to Ken Post, the district’s director of financial planning and operations. The proposed budget addresses emerging issues in those areas, he said.

There are 4,274 students in the public schools and the proposed budget has a per-pupil expenditure of $17,990.

Per-pupil expenditures over the last three years have been:

• $17,141 in 2012-2013.

• $16,727 in 2011-2012.

• $15,835 in 2010-2011.

Per-pupil spending increased:

• 5.6% from 2010-11 to 2011-12.

• 2.5% from 2011-12 to 2012-13.

• 5.0% from 2013-13 to 2013-14 (proposed).

Board of Finance members questioned a number of line items, including about $100,000 for ice time for the hockey teams. The explanation was that the district is paying market rate for rink time.

Jim Meinhold asked about reducing the number of kindergarten and first grade classes by one each, which would pop the average class size just over the goal of 18 to 20 students. For first grade it would be 20.2 students, for kindergarten 20.3 students. The savings would be about $80,000 for each reduction.

Lynne Vanderslice, also on the finance board, asked if school officials could give her guidance on an acceptable class size range for the high school.

“It depends,” Bruce Likly, chairman of the school board, said. “There are some classes that are relatively small because of enrollment,” but others are dependent on the material to be studied.

Tim Canty, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said, “Some range from 11 to 13 — that’s an anomaly — to class sizes in the high 20, which you will find more of. In social studies and science we are moving off the norm on the high end.”

Nearly all class sizes are within the school board’s stated goals, according to budget materials. The exceptions are middle and high school social studies at 22.7 and 22.3 students, respectively, and middle school science at 22.7 students. The goal for those classes is 20 to 22 students.

One area where the school board made cuts to achieve its current budget is in deferring the wireless program at Miller-Driscoll and Cider Mill. However, the board is going forward with expanding the wireless capability at Middlebrook, and technology director Mat Hepfer was asked about this.

The plan, he said, is to offer more hot spots in the cafeteria and an area in each house or pod.

“Middlebrook is making substantial changes with the way they teach with limited wireless,” he said.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is accommodate the number of computers they use, especially with big team projects,” he added. In addition, students are bringing their own devices to meet the demand. “Allowing that to be where you don’t have to bring an entire class to the media center will reform how they access the curriculum. Teachers are changing how they teach. We need to have the infrastructure to meet that demand.”

“We have the responsibility to look into the out years,” Mr. Canty said. “There will be increased movement to mobile devices.”

In addition, Superintendent of Schools Gary Richards said, the state is moving toward online standardized testing. “Given the fact you have a computer lab isn’t going to make it when you have to test three grade levels.”

What’s the plan?

Looking beyond the line items and the mandates to ever-increasing taxes, finance member Andy Pforzheimer asked, “Is anybody looking more than 12 months down the road? What’s the plan?”

“We started looking at it last summer,” Mr. Likly said. “We are doing that more than we’ve done in the past. You will see us doing more of it. What does it look like two to three years down the road? We see the problems, too.”

Al Alper, also on the finance board, seized on that train of thought, saying he has lived in town for 12 years and his children have been going to Wilton schools. “Over the course of 12 years the budget has doubled. My kids have gotten a terrific education but not double the education.”

Acknowledging a comment made by Mr. Likly that the school board keeps an eye on what neighboring towns are doing in terms of budget increases, Mr. Alper said the finance board does the same in regard to tax rates.

“I believe we are at the apex of a tax rate that will be a death spiral if we don’t do something,” he said.

“If we continue on this unsustainable incline … it will become too expensive to live here. That is the reality we deal with on the Board of Finance.

“Going up 3% every year is not sustainable.”

In asking how “we” got to this point, he said, “the only relevant drivers are the mandates. Everything else is discretion.”

Mr. Alper asked the school board for a report on “what did the school district look like in 2001” — core curriculum classes, non-core classes, number of teachers, administrators, etc.

“How did we get here? What was in and out of our control?”

Mr. Likly said the board has done a fair bit of that analysis already and would make an effort to get him the information.

At this point, the Board of Finance can convey more questions to the school board or call for another meeting similar to Monday’s. When the Board of Finance considers the new mill rate in April is usually when it asks the school board to make further changes, if any.