Board of Finance: A new approach to budget hikes
Board of Finance members Jeff Rutishauser and Richard Creeth have been working with the Board of Education’s Business Operations Committee to develop a new approach to the education budget’s annual growth target.
During the finance board’s July 21 meeting, Rutishauser presented a proposal outlining why the finance board should use student enrollment and per-pupil expenditure to determine the education budget target.
“It’s a little different than what we’ve done in the past,” said Rutishauser. “The idea is to shift the basis upon which we make the budget [target] to the number of students, per-pupil growth expenditure and the combination of the two.”
In past years, the finance board has taken the same 1.75% annual growth target and applied it to both the Board of Selectmen budget and Board of Education budget.
When the 1.75% was first established, according to the proposal, the education board had concerns that it was “too tight.” However, Rutishauser pointed out, the education board has “brought in budgets below 1.75% annual growth for three of the past seven years, demonstrating that it can be done.”
The main objective of the new approach is to inform the finance board of “the future budget targets for the BOE, allowing it to plan accordingly in the face of what appears to be a significant and sustained decline in Wilton Public Schools enrollment.”
At the Board of Education’s July 23 meeting, Chairman Bruce Likly said he wanted the public to know the finance and education boards are “working collaboratively” on the new approach.
“It’s a work in progress and I’m excited about it,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s perfect yet, but we’ll see more as it comes along.”
Rutishauser said that student enrollment forecasts — prepared by certified accountant and actuary Ellen Essman, consulting firm Milone & MacBroom and Dr. Peter Prowda — all show “significant near-term decline in enrollment.”
There were 2,603 students enrolled in the school system in 1990, said Rutishauser, and this number increased to 4,334 by 2009. However, a gradual decline started after 2009. In fiscal year 2015, Wilton schools had 4,182 students — a 3.6% reduction from the 2009 peak.
“The trend towards declining enrollment is expected to continue in the next eight years — declining even faster than the previous seven years,” said Rutishauser.
“We are looking at a systematically large decline in the number of students. Each year, it doesn’t look like that much, but when you add them all up, it’s — by their forecasts — 17-28% fewer students just seven years out — with the trend line still going down.”
Because of this, Rutishauser said he thinks the finance board’s budget methodology should be “tracking towards an increase in per-pupil expenditures — so that the resources are there per student, plus inflation — and also track the enrollment to help tie down the overall numbers of the budget.”
Rutishauser acknowledged that it would take “some effort to bring the budget down at the same rate as the number of students.”
“One of the issues that we’re dealing with is long-range planning,” he said, “and how to adjust the budget according to projection of enrollment that is basically getting smaller over the next several years.”
Finance board member Al Alper said he liked the proposed approach.
“I like that this forces the Board of Ed — which has not traditionally done this — to think longer term,” he said, adding that a basis on per-pupil expenditure would also help parents see how much of the budget is spent on their children. “It personalizes it for the public.”
The finance board voted to set the guidance for the Board of Education budget at “the number of students times the percentage increase in per-pupil expenditure.”
Rutishauser proposed a 2.2% annual growth target for the education budget, but the board decided to not vote on either the education budget target or the selectmen budget target.
The board will instead determine the target percentages at a later meeting.