Packed house at Wilton school budget hearing
Participation is what the education and finance boards wanted, and participation is what they got.
The Middlebrook auditorium, which holds more than 700 people, was packed the evening of Monday, March 28, for the Board of Finance and Board of Education’s public hearing on the proposed $80,972,640 school budget for fiscal year 2017.
Of the approximately 35 taxpayers who spoke at the hearing, around 20 said they were in favor of the proposed budget, which reflects a 1.27% increase over the current budget and a decrease of 6.65 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff.
The overall proposed budget breaks down as follows:
- Salaries: 60.3%.
- Employee benefits: 16.9%.
- Contracted services, outplacements, supplies and equipment: 14.2%.
- Transportation: 4.8%.
- Buildings, operations and facilities: 2.8%.
- Substitutes: 1%.
In dollars, the proposed budget allocates:
- $49,696,710 to salaries.
- $13,703,882 to employee benefits.
- $4,066,446 to purchased professional services.
- $1,256,742 to purchased property services.
- $9,493,443 to other purchased services, including transportation.
- $1,586,820 to supplies.
- $1,168,597 to equipment and “other.”
One supporter of the budget is Rivergate Drive resident Ben Frutos, who moved to Wilton in the spring of 2014 with his wife and two-year-old daughter.
Frutos said he and his wife decided to move to Wilton based on what they could afford and how U.S. News & World Report ranked the quality of education offered at Wilton High School.
While their focus had been on high school education, Frutos said, he and his wife found out their daughter had autism in the fall of 2014 and didn’t know what to expect.
“She started in Miller-Driscoll. When she turned 3, she started in the pre-K program, and it’s been phenomenal,” he said. “To see the change in her within less than a year’s time has really been tremendous. The work that they do there is amazing.”
Frutos said he moved to Wilton thinking about the high school but now finds himself “benefiting in a town that has an amazing special needs program that [he] knew nothing about.”
“It wasn’t in the U.S. News & World Report. I had no idea, and yet, by some gift, I actually am now benefiting from it; she is benefiting from it,” he said, “and we now have another daughter, so there’s another student who’s going to be coming through the [school system].”
Frutos said he believes people come to Wilton because of its “greatest amenity” — the school system.
“We can’t take away from the education,” he said. “I don’t think that’s something we can do because that’s what’s bringing people in.”
Shagbark Place resident and former finance board chair Paul Hannah said he also supports the proposed school budget and complimented the finance and education boards on getting “the biggest crowd” since he was the finance board chair 20 years ago.
Although he “can’t complain” about decreasing housing values since he bought his Wilton home in 1974 for $85,000, Hannah said, “I want to say that if this budget does not pass, it will go back in value to that $85,000.”
“I am pretty much on a fixed income [and] I have seen my house go up, but I plan to stay in Wilton, so I do encourage the Board of Finance to go along with the school budget,” he said.
“When I was chair of the Board of Finance, we would have been delighted with this amount of proposed increase. We could never get one that low.”
Some members of the public expressed concerns, including Thayer Pond Road resident Mary Ann Acampora, who moved from Westchester County to Darien and then Wilton 23 years ago “because of taxes,” she said, and “not for the school system.”
“The school system’s fine, I’m sure. Darien’s school system is fine as well. It’s an investment. Our children are definitely an investment for our future,” said Acampora, “but buying a house is a family’s largest investment.”
Acampora said she is the oldest citizen on her road and has seen families move into her neighborhood and leave once their children go through the school system.
“This is a town attached to a school system. That’s what it is for the people who are not invested in the school system,” said Acampora, who is concerned about taxes.
“The house we sold in Darien sold last fall for close to $2 million. My house here is worth maybe $800,000. The taxes are the same — $16,000,” she said. “We are pricing ourselves out of the housing market.”
Acampora said she loves living in Wilton, but is displeased with all the empty storefronts, office buildings and houses.
“There are more stores for rent, buildings for lease and houses for sale,” she said. “We have lovely brick sidewalks to walk to all the empty stores, and it’s depressing.”
With older residents and businesses like GE leaving the area, said Acampora, “you’ll see your tax base and your grand list go down [and] you’re going to have a problem in this town.”
At the beginning of the hearing, Board of Finance Chair Jeff Rutishauser said the grand list has only increased 19 basis points from last year — “an unexpectedly low increase after last years’ 82-basis point increase” he said.
“What this means is that we only have an additional $220,000 of tax revenue from grand list growth this year to offset the rise of projected budget expenses,” said Rutishauser, “whereas we had an increase of $923,000 last year at this time.”
Rutishauser said that $700,000 decrease in annual tax revenue coming from grand list growth is a “huge and disappointing drop.”
“It’s important to understand the role the expanded grand list plays in offsetting the budgetary expense problem and how important it is for the town to be more accommodating to developers building new residential and commercial properties,” he said.
“We need to add wealth to the grand list, and adding new development and wealth to the town’s grand list eases the tax burden for all of us. This is something we as a town need to focus on in the future.”
With this budget, Acampora said, there is “going to be a problem.”
“If I ran my household the way this is being run, I would be running scared,” she said. “You don’t have enough on your grand list.”
Addressing the boards
Cannon Road resident Sara Curtis thanked the Board of Finance for its work in this year’s budget process.
After attending a number of budget workshops and watching meetings, Curtis said, she was “really struck” by “what an incredible group” the finance board is and “what an amazing job” its members have done.
While she was also “really struck” by the “great questions” the finance board asked the Board of Education during the Feb. 25 budget workshop, Curtis said, she was bothered by some of the education board’s responses.
“There were a lot of fuzzy answers to a lot of the really good questions that were asked,” she said. “I felt that the Board of Education did a disservice to the people of this town with some of their comments.”
Earlier this month, Board of Education Chair Bruce Likly wrote a letter saying the finance board would “most likely” want to cut $1,016,000 from the proposed school budget. As a result, Likly wrote, freshman athletics, a Miller-Driscoll teacher position, and all co-curriculars at Cider Mill, Middlebrook and the high school could be eliminated, and thousands of dollars could come out of areas like the math program, the Cider Mill art program, and technology.
“I think putting fear into people is never a good thing, and what I saw was really a lack of taking ownership for some of the long-range planning that hasn’t gone on,” said Curtis.
“I think a lot of what the Board of Finance has done this year is not about being against the Board of Education budget or against the budget as a whole. I don’t think there’s been a person up here tonight … against supporting the wonderful things that happen in our school system.”
Curtis said she went through the school system and knows there are “a lot of great things,” but she’s also been a taxpayer for 36 years and has seen her taxes go up almost 400%.
“I think people want to support the education budget. What we don’t want to support is the cavalier attitude to a lot of the questions that were asked [and] the joking,” she said.
“It’s not a joke when your taxes have gone up 400%. It’s not a joke when you’re a senior who has lived here for 60 years and really in some ways have no place to go. I think we need to think about some of the other people in the town.”
The Annual Town Meeting to discuss the budget will take place on Tuesday, May 3, at Middlebrook School, with voting following the meeting. Residents may also take part in the adjourned vote on Saturday, May 7, from 9 to 6, at the Clune Center.
Click here to view the proposed school budget.
Click here to watch the March 28 public hearing on the proposed school budget.