Another instance of low turnout at school budget hearing


A crowd of only about 40 people gathered in the Middlebrook auditorium on Thursday, Jan. 22, to hear Superintendent Kevin Smith’s $79,956,024 recommended budget for FY16.
“One important goal in developing a budget is balancing the need to appropriately manage costs while ensuring that our schools receives adequate financing so that we maintain our exemplary programs,” said Dr. Smith, “and that we fund the initiatives necessary for continuous improvement.”
Not only was the number of attendees small, but the presentation was also short — less than 40 minutes long, followed by only two comments from the public — one from Ridgefield Road resident Dave Clune, who inquired about a change in a science teacher position at Cider Mill; and the second from Signal Hill Road resident Warren Serenbetz, who got to the microphone, addressed Dr. Smith as “Kevin,” and gave him a round of applause before saying, “Thank you very much.”

Budget breakdown


Wilton’s proposed budget represents a 1.98% increase over the current fiscal year, which Dr. Smith pointed out is lower than the proposed increases of the following neighboring towns:

  • New Canaan: 5%;

  • Westport: 3.75%;

  • Darien: 3.65%;

  • Fairfield: 3.29%;

  • Ridgefield: 3.19%;

  • Weston: 3.17%;

  • Easton: 2.49%;

  • Monroe: 2.34%;

  • Greenwich: 2% (excluding health).


The proposed operating budget, which Dr. Smith said “strengthens our district’s capacity to utilize strategies that improve teaching and learning, while reflecting a desire to be fiscally responsible,” breaks down as follows:

  • Salaries: 60.5%;

  • Employee benefits: 17.3%;

  • Contracted services, outplacements, supplies and equipment: 13.8%;

  • Transportation: 4.5%;

  • Buildings, operations and facilities: 2.9%;

  • Substitutes: 1%.


“The majority of the funding request is tied directly to the compensation of our professional staff. Wilton Public Schools invests significantly in its teachers,” said Dr. Smith.
“Research correlating effective teaching and student achievement is clear — a critical initiative tied to improving achievement in Wilton is building the capacity of our teachers.”
Plans supported by this budget proposal, said Dr. Smith, include:

  • Increasing time for staff collaboration and professional learning;

  • Providing laptop computers to all classroom teachers;

  • Restructuring critical instructional and curricular support systems.

Salaries and benefits


The budget allocates 78% of its operating budget to employee salaries ($49,195,566) and benefits ($13,825,967).
The $1,145,931 or 2.38% increase in salaries would be “mainly contractual,” said Dr. Smith. Certified staff members would receive the highest salary increase at 3.2%, while substitute salaries would decrease by 3.94%.
The teacher’s contract has a general wage increase for teachers at the top salary step and only step movement for those who are not yet at the top level.
Benefits would decrease by $1,084,821 or 7.28%, as a result of “favorable claims history,” said Dr. Smith, noting that more than 60% of school district employees will be in the high-deductible health plan next year.
The proposed budget also reflects a decrease of 4.3 FTEs (full-time equivalents) and a “significant decrease” in town retirement contributions — a plan that has been closed to new employees since 2011 — due to “favorable investment performance.”

Special education


The budget also proposes $3,865,367 for special education tuition next year — an $813,609 increase over the current year. Dr. Smith said this increase is due to an increase in outplaced students and mediated legal settlements in recent years.
Dr. Smith pointed out that 591 students in the district — 1.38% of the population — receive special education services, of which:

  • 79 receive special programming for autism spectrum disorders;

  • 22 receive specialized programming for multiple disabilities;

  • 29 with complex needs are out-placed to special facilities by the Wilton Public Schools or state agencies.


Services, supplies and equipment


The budget proposes spending $3,671,989 on professional services — a $610,692 or 19.94% increase, of which special education legal fees, independent evaluations and services to students would account for 62%.
Other district legal fees, the Safe School Climate initiative and Improving Special Education Outcomes study would account for 29% of the increase, while professional development would account for the remainder.
The budget also proposes a $9,969 or 0.67% decrease in overall supplies, a 9.29% increase in textbooks and a $48,373 or 4.49% increase in equipment spending.

Transportation


Reflecting a $116,096 contractual increase, the budget proposes spending $3,745,217 on transportation in the following areas:

  • $2,859,122 for basic transportation;

  • $711,811 for special education transportation;

  • $174,284 for athletic/other transportation.


Building operations


The budget proposes spending $1,223,427 on property services — a $14,283 or 1.18% increase over the current year. It also proposes $315,000 be spent on remodeling and major repairs.
According to Dr. Smith, the $104,000 remodeling and repairs increase would be partially offset by an $81,082 decrease in property repairs and protection, for which the budget proposes $545,822 be spent.

Next steps


Dr. Smith thanked the Board of Education, Board of Finance and “all the members of the community who have provided input and feedback,” which, he said, has had a “direct impact” on the proposed spending plan.
The education board will host its second community conversation in the Middlebrook School media center on Monday, Jan. 26, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. On Thursday, Feb. 5, the board will meet to decide on the proposed budget.
Click here to view the public hearing presentation.