Education board adopts budget
By unanimous vote, the Wilton Board of Education adopted Superintendent Kevin Smith’s $82,376,563 proposed school budget for fiscal year 2019 (FY19) during its Feb. 22 meeting.
The budget reflects a 2.24% spending increase over current levels, which exceeds the 1% budget increase guidance issued by the Board of Finance in October.
Education board member Glenn Hemmerle, however, said he believes it’s “still not enough” — even with the reinstatement of textbooks and online licenses, a social worker, special education secretary and English language learner teacher in the budget, which increased Smith’s proposed budget $207,611.
“I think there's still work to be done — things that we should be doing that we’re not doing,” he said.
“Our aggregate dollar increase over the last four years, with the fourth year being next year’s budget, is 1.3%. That’s nothing, and that’s taking into consideration the new budget that we’re looking at.”
Regardless of the board’s decision to adopt the superintendent’s budget, Hemmerle said, “the Board of Finance is going to do what they want to do.”
However, he said, the education board will have the opportunity to present the budget to taxpayers before the finance board’s final decision.”
“I would ask and implore those citizens in the community, who hopefully feel as strongly as I do about protecting this asset in Wilton, to participate in that presentation and let the Board of Finance know how they feel about it,” said Hemmerle.
“Like it or not,” he added, Wilton is compared, from an educational perspective, with Darien, Westport, New Canaan, Ridgefield and the surrounding communities.
“If we do not even come close to keeping pace with the competitive communities around us … if we do not remain competitive in this one major asset that this community has, which is our educational system, we’re done,” he said.
Hemmerle said the district’s aggregate increase of 1.3% is “substantially lower than the surrounding communities have invested in their educational systems over the last four years” and Wilton is “not even keeping pace” with the proposed 2.24% school budget increase.
“I think 1.3% over the last four years is a clear indication that this board the administration has paid close attention to the financial concerns of this town, but we can't keep kicking the can down the road,” he said.
“We’ve got to step up, and this is a small, small step, really, to get us back to where we should be and doing the things that we should be doing.”
Deborah Low said she supports the budget and thinks it “does the balance.”
“I think there’s a lot of other needs there that we’re going to need to get to,” she said, “but I think this [budget] paces it at a reasonable rate it’s affordable and maintains our quality.”
Lory Rothstein said for her, the budget really “comes down to the question of the [school district’s] vision.”
“We at the Board of Education have a vision statement … and I’m convinced that this is a budget that keeps us on our path towards our vision,” said said. “I think at a very minimal level, but it keeps us moving in that direction.”
Rothstein said the question for taxpayers and the Board of Finance is going to be what their vision for the town is.
“Do you agree with our vision? If you agree with it, you would have to support this budget because it very minimally continues us on that path. If you don’t agree with this budget, then there must be something in our vision that you must not agree with — and if that’s the case, then tell us what that is,” she said.
“We will do what the taxpayers in the community want, but in my six years on this board, the town has always said, ‘We come here for the schools’ — [that] the school system is the gem of the town [and] the greatest asset of the town. With that being the case, it’s agreement to our vision, in my mind.”
Board of Education Chair Christine Finkelstein said the budget has “no bells and whistles,” but it keeps Wilton’s public schools on “a steady path.”
This is the district’s “fourth lean budget year, so all the fat is gone,” said Finkelstein.
“There’s just no way to cut this budget without really affecting the programming.”
Finkelstein mentioned the board’s joint meeting with the Board of Finance the night before, during which a great deal of time was spent discussing staffing levels.
“Last night, Dr. Smith gave us a list of new job titles that didn’t even exist 10 years ago, or that we didn’t really need in this district until the last few years,” she said. The list included, but was not limited to, the following positions:
- Safe school climate coordinator;
- School resource officer;
- Math and English interventionists;
- In-house professional development personnel, which include curriculum coordinators and coaches.
“You look at that list and every single one of those positions is essential to our students,” said Finkelstein.
“I guess the message is that education is changing and good education is expensive.”
Finkelstein said Wilton has “always been a town that values education,” and she believes residents will support the proposed budget.
“We’ve looked at the numbers every which way and we’ve looked at what our neighboring communities are doing, and we’re pretty much right smack in the middle of what our DRG [district reference group] counterparts are doing,” she said.
Finkelstein said she doesn’t want Wilton to be known as “the low-cost” school system.
“That’s not a competition I’m interested in winning. Instead, I’d rather win the competition for delivering the most efficient budget that delivers the best academic success,” she said.
“This is a budget that I’m happy to support and that I’ll be happy and proud to bring to the town.”
The Board of Finance will hold a public hearing on the Board of Education budget Monday, March 26, 7:30 p.m., at Middlebrook School.