Administrators re-examine school budget

In light of a $400,000 reduction from the Board of Finance and “very bleak news flowing from Hartford,” Superintendent Kevin Smith said he and school administrators have been working "very diligently” to look for areas in the fiscal year 2017 (FY17) school budget that can be funded differently, deferred or cut.

In an effort to close a $2.6-million shortfall caused by smaller-than-anticipated grand list growth, decreased surplus reserves, and an increase in debt service, the finance board cut $400,000 from the FY17 school budget on April 7, leaving $80,572,640 for the education board to work with. 

Instead of a 1.27% increase initially proposed by the education board, its FY17 budget now reflects a 0.77% increase over the current school budget.

In the budget re-examination process, Smith said he and administrators first looked at “what is most important” to the schools and what needs to be protected.

“For the administrators, we need to protect the work we’re doing with the students in the classrooms, so we need to protect all of the resources that are going into classrooms,” Smith said during the education board’s April 28 meeting.

“We need to protect the resources that we are directing to our instructional improvement program. We have committed to this concept of hiring math interventionists, so we are not slating those positions for a reduction.”

Smith said “every other staffing position” is being examined and looked at “relative to the need,” and the same goes for items in the supplies budget.

“We’ve worked on some contingency plans and we’ve gone back into our supplies budgets,” he said. “These are pretty small to begin with, but we’ve gone back and looked again [to see if] there are any materials that we had planned for purchase that we can defer another year or find a way to do without them.”

Although it is a “major area of priority” and one the district wants to protect, said Smith,  technology expenditures have also been examined “very closely.”

Board of Education Chair Bruce Likly said the district is “looking at ways to make changes that do not affect current programming.”

“I think what’s important ... is that we are going to focus on making sure that if we have sacred cows, they are the classroom and the resources that go into those classrooms.”

Hiring freezes, school organization and class sizes have been discussed, said Likly, as well as reductions in areas like athletics, art and music, which were mentioned in what Likly called his “scorched earth email.”

“Right now, I’m not overly concerned about what I put in that ‘scorched earth email,’” he said, “but we don’t know what the state’s going to do so there is nothing that’s not on the table.”

‘Bleak outlook’

Smith said he is less concerned about this budget cycle than he is about future ones.

“My concern, really, is longer term,” he said. “It’s not just about getting through this budget cycle, and that really speaks to some of the economic realities that our legislators in Hartford seem to be leading up to ... and the very bleak outlook over the next few years.”

Likly said the question of “what’s going to happen in the state and the Education Cost Sharing Grant that the town has taken in for years” is currently on the table.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen — there’s nobody out there that knows what’s going to happen,” he said, “but my feeling is that there will be cuts.”

The Board of Finance has already put an estimated cut of $250,000 in the town budget, said Likly, “so anything beyond that, the town’s going to have to figure out how to deal with.”

“I’ve been in conversation with the Board of Finance chair [Jeff Rutishauser] and the first selectman [Lynne Vanderslice],” said Likly, “and we’re in agreement, I believe, that we will try to collaborate as three boards to figure out how to deal with that.”

Smith noted that the Board of Finance has signaled a “strong desire” for the Board of Education to come in flat — with a 0% increase — next budget-planning cycle. That, he said, is something that needs to be kept in mind while planning.

Although this may look like “a dire time,” said Likly, “there is a tremendous amount of people in our community that understand that our schools are the gem that they are and we will do the best that we can for our students.”

Annual Town Meeting

Likly said there are two things that could happen when the school budget goes to the town at the Annual Town Meeting on May 3, 7:30 p.m., in the Clune Center.

“The first is that it gets approved to go to vote, at which point there will be voting Tuesday night and also on Saturday,” he said, “or there could be a motion from the floor to reduce the budget.”

If the latter occurs, Likly said, a simple majority of Wilton taxpayers in the room “will determine whether or not the budget gets cut further.”

Smith said it’s “important to note” that the school budget recommendations will not be finalized until after the Annual Town Meeting.