The Board of Finance met with the Board of Education to review the recently updated proposed fiscal year 2019 (FY19) school budget on Tuesday, Feb. 13. The budget originally proposed by Superintendent Kevin Smith has been increased from $82,168,952 to $82,376,563 at the Board of Education\u2019s request to reinstate a social worker, a special education secretary, textbooks and online licenses, and an English language learner teacher. The board also \u201cinstructed the administration to look for efficiencies,\u201d said Board of Education Chair Christine Finkelstein, and professional learning and climate development spending was reduced. With these changes, the proposed budget now reflects a 2.24% spending increase over current levels. This exceeds the 1% FY19 budget increase guidance the Board of Finance issued in October. Financial burden Finance board member Stewart Koenigsberg asked if the education board thought it was \u201cfair\u201d to \u201cpropose new costly programs for what has been described as \u201cunmet needs,\u201d considering external pressures faced by taxpayers. \u201cWilton already has among the highest mill rates in the area,\u201d said Koenigsberg, and \u201cHartford recently announced cutting funding for schools and increasing the burden on town taxpayers, and many residents will struggle with non-deductibility in real estate and income taxes.\u201d Smith said he does not believe the Board of Education has ignored such external pressures. In fact, Smith said, he would argue that the recent budget \u201creflects those pressures\u201d by \u201ctrying to find a balance between managing the state kicking the can, so to speak, and shifting the burden to municipalities, and also trying to proactively improve the quality of education here in Wilton for our students.\u201d \u201cAs an educator, we\u2019re making the right choices. Expensive ones, but I continue to be concerned about this climate and the potential for the degradation of our school system, because that would further enhance the negative economic spiral that some of us think we\u2019re in,\u201d he said. While he believes Smith and the education board have \u201ca very clear understanding of the difficulties the town is going through,\u201d Koenigsberg said, he also knows people are \u201cfeeling quite stressed\u201d about the new federal tax bill and their home values. \u201cI think as we talk about this, that is certainly the context,\u201d he said. Preschool program Board of Finance Chair Jeff Rutishauser said a number of finance board members have raised concerns about the district\u2019s new preschool program. \u201cA year ago we talked about the incremental costs,\u201d said Rutishauser. \u201cWe\u2019re here a year later asking, How much does it cost? How many students do we have? What did we charge? What did we collect? Let\u2019s get to the real numbers of what we have in school today, and, most importantly, Are we collecting the revenue that we said we would collect a year ago?\u201d Chief Financial Officer Anne Kelly-Lenz said three preschool classrooms were originally budgeted for 2017-18. By September, she said, enrollment exceeded expectations and a fourth class had to be added. \u201cIt went up to 54 children \u2014 of that, 26 were typical and 28 were SPED [special education],\u201d she said. As a result, a fourth classroom was added by reallocating resources. In January, Kelly-Lenz said, preschool enrollment rose to 73 students as a result of students aging into the program. Forty-one were in special education. \u201cAt that point, we had five classrooms,\u201d said Kelly-Lenz, \u201cso we took a look at the budget to see what we were charging typical kids to come into the program and if we could even afford to [add a] classroom to support an increase in typicals.\u201d Tuition is $7,000 for five days a week, with an option for 4-year-olds to stay until 3:30 on Tuesdays and Thursdays for an additional $1,000. After discovering that adding typical students makes the program profitable, a fifth classroom was added. \u201cThe revenues to date for those typicals is $172,000 that we have actually collected, with the potential of another $20,000 to come in,\u201d Kelly-Lenz said. \u201cWhat I saw happening is we get enrollments in the beginning of the year and in 2017-18, nine to 10 kids [typical students] either dropped out or were identified as SPED kids, so we lose that revenue.\u201d \u201cIt\u2019s hard to balance that revenue side because once a child gets in, they can actually be identified as SPED.\u201d When it comes to the 2018-19 budget, Kelly-Lenz said, there are five teachers for five classrooms, an administrator to oversee the whole program, eight paraprofessionals, and one secretary. In the budget, the preschool teachers are reflected as 4.8 full time equivalent (FTE) rather than 5 FTE, and the administrator is reflected as 0.11 FTE rather than 0.5 FTE \u00a0because a small grant is covering part of those costs. In the proposed 2018-19 budget, the preschool program is budgeted at $150,000, which Kelly-Lenz said, \u201cmore than covers the program right now with having typical kids in there.\u201d DMC report With respect to the District Management Council (DMC) study conducted for the school district in 2015, finance board member Walter Kress expressed concern about \u201cthe efficient delivery of appropriate services to those truly in need.\u201d \u201cThere are a number of suggestions that were made by the [DMC] and I haven\u2019t seen \u2026 a detailed analysis of what\u2019s been done to date, cost savings, changes, what\u2019s being worked on today with specific timelines associated with those and, ideally, some representation of cost or savings,\u201d said Kress. Kress said he believes this detailed analysis needs to be done \u201cthoroughly\u201d so the DMC report can be \u201cput behind us.\u201d \u201cSpecial needs represents one-sixth of this town\u2019s total budget. It\u2019s a very significant piece and it happens to be\u00a0one of fastest-growing pieces that we\u2019re all wrestling with,\u201d he said. Three recommendations made by the DMC, Smith said, had to do with \u201cefficiency and reducing staff based on some assumptions.\u201d \u201cSome of the assumptions built into their recommendations were things like if we increase contact time between related service providers and students, we\u2019ll be more efficient; if we streamline paperwork, we\u2019ll be more efficient; if we increase group sizes, we\u2019ll be more efficient,\u201d he said. \u201cAll those things on their face make a lot of sense,\u201d he said, but the reason such changes haven\u2019t been seen is not due to \u201clack of interest.\u201d \u201cI think in whatever comparisons DMC made to their national database, they did misread the climate here in making those statements,\u201d said Smith. \u201cThat being said, I want you to understand that we have made changes.\u201d Smith said some of the changes, such as reducing kindergarten paraprofessionals, actually preceded the DMC recommendations. The district has also been able to \u201ccome down in OT services.\u201d However, Smith said, he isn\u2019t sure the district will be able to \u201ccome down to the levels proposed by the DMC\u201d because he doesn\u2019t think they \u201chad [the district\u2019s] context just right.\u201d PPTs is an area that \u201creally drives a lot of staffing time\u201d in Wilton schools, said Smith. \u201cIn this climate, there is a very high demand for services, and that manifests itself in a number of ways,\u201d he said, such as referral requests. \u201cWe have a high number of referrals for special education,\u201d he said. \u201cWe conduct comprehensive evaluations \u2014 that takes a lot of time\u00a0\u2014 and then we have a lot of PPT [planning placement team] meetings.\u201d During PPT meetings, Smith explained, service providers and families go through goals and objectives related to individualized education programs (IEPs). Over the last couple of years, Smith said, the district has \u201cmade efforts \u2026 to reduce the total number of PPTs\u201d and has seen those numbers drop \u201cpretty dramatically.\u201d \u201cWe\u2019ve also made efforts to reduce the amount of time spent per PPT and the number of staff present at the PPT with the purpose of getting our service providers back in front of kids,\u201d he said. \u201cWe also continue to scrutinize the schedules and group sizes \u2014 primarily with OT, PT and speech and language service providers. The net result there is we have been able to step away from those meeting requirements.\u201d \u201cWhat we haven\u2019t been able to do to the magnitude proposed by the DMC is peel back on the required number of staff.\u201d Smith said that\u2019s an area the district continues to look at. The boards will continue to address and discuss questions from the finance board Wednesday, Feb. 21, at 7:30 p.m. in the Wilton High School Professional Library. The Board of Education is slated to vote on the budget the following day.