Enrollment shrinks while staff levels maintain and budgets increase
Peter Balderston, the only Board of Finance member to not vote in favor of a $400,000 cut from the fiscal year 2017 (FY17) Board of Education budget earlier this month, said the cut was “not enough.”
Balderston said he believes it would have been more appropriate to hold the education board’s budget flat to last year, considering the school district’s declining student enrollment.
Seven years ago, district enrollment peaked at 4,412 students and “has been declining ever since,” Balderston said at the finance board’s April 6 mill rate meeting. Projected student enrollment for 2016-17 is 4,120.
Districtwide enrollment has declined approximately 1% each year, while Wilton’s school budget increases have averaged 2.28% annually.
Even though 99 fewer students are expected to attend Wilton schools next year, the $80,572,640 school budget for FY17 — which goes to vote at the Annual Town Meeting on Tuesday, May 3 — reflects a 0.77% increase from the current school budget.
“I bring a private sector point of view to my role on the Board of Finance. When you start losing customers, you need to shrink the staff that serves those customers,” said Balderston, pointing out that the average annual cost per student between 2006 and 2015 increased 4.2%.
“The taxpayers of this town have been very generous to our school system over the past seven years, during which the number of customers it serves has declined. We’ve known about these reductions for some time now, and we know that these reductions will continue for at least the next four to five years.”
Balderston noted that the students-to- total-staff ratio has fallen to “levels never seen before in Wilton school history,” with Miller-Driscoll and Cider Mill having the fastest falling student enrollment and student-to-staff ratios in the district.
At Miller-Driscoll, the student-to-total- staff ratio went from 13.8-to-1 in 2000 (1,226 students), to 10.4-to-1 in 2015 (813 students). The ratio for FY17 will be 10-to-1, with 780 enrolled students.
At Cider Mill, the ratio went from 11.3-to-1 in 2007 (1,057 students) to 11-to-1 in 2015 (974 students). The ratio for FY17 will be 10.6-to-1, with 900 enrolled students.
Between 2000 and 2015, district- wide student-to-staff ratio declined nearly 15%.
According to Balderston’s data, some student-to-total-staff ratios — including district staff — over the last 15 years, have been:
- 2000: 8.01.
- 2001: 7.56.
- 2004: 7.18.
- 2007: 6.94.
- 2010: 6.78.
- 2012: 6.94.
- 2015: 6.83.
While enrollment has decreased over the years, the number of fulltime equivalent (FTE) classified staff and classroom teachers has increased overall.
According to the proposed FY17 school budget, the district had the following FTE classroom teachers, other certified staff, and classified staff over the last five years:
- 2010-11 (4,341 enrollment): 274.15 teachers, 97.16 certified, 211.79 classified.
- 2011-12 (4,357 enrollment): 271.15 teachers, 97.92 certified, 210.6 classified.
- 2012-13 (4,334 enrollment): 273.35 teachers, 100.61 certified, 211.43 classified.
- 2013-14 (4,319 enrollment): 272.9 teachers, 104.85 certified, 209.68 classified.
- 2014-15 (4,280 enrollment): 274.5 teachers, 112.16 certified, 210.53 classified.
- 2015-16 (4,219 enrollment): 275.15 teachers, 114.46 certified, 203.28 classified.
The proposed FY17 school budget calls for:
- 276.2 FTE classroom teachers (1.05% increase over the current school year).
- 115.46 FTE other certified staff (1% increase over the current school year).
- 194.58 FTE classified staff (8.7% decrease over the current school year).
“In my opinion, the Board of Education has been slow to respond to enrollment declines over the past seven years,” said Balderston, “and it’s time to manage down the growth of our school budgets relative to the number of students it serves.”
Balderston acknowledged that “great schools give rise to strong property values,” but said “real estate assets with too high a tax burden cause property values to fall and new families to look elsewhere for real estate that holds its value.”
On April 7, the finance board settled on an FY17 mill rate of 27.3371, representing a 1.89% increase over the current rate.
Balderston said the finance board’s duty is “to make sure property taxes are assessed in a balanced and prudent manner, and that those tax dollars are spent wisely.”
“Understanding this balance between a great school system and the property taxes which support that school system is at the heart of our mandate,” he said.
“In my opinion, property tax increases over the last 10 years have created a very soft real estate environment for most Wilton homeowners.”
Over the last 10 years, Balderston said, property tax increases in Wilton have averaged 3.27% per year.
During the finance board’s March 15 meeting , local real estate agents discussed what attracts and repels potential Wilton homebuyers, and while education was cited as a big draw-in, taxes were noted to be the biggest turn-off.
“They come here for education, but once we start talking about what the town offers and they look at the taxes … some of them just don’t feel there’s enough of a return,” said Realty Seven agent Lynne Murphy. “They’re not getting enough for what they’re paying, so they look to the other towns.”
Balderston said Wilton’s increasing property taxes have “risen to levels that have depressed home prices and created a sizable and growing inventory of homes for sale.” This burden, he said, “acts like a growing, permanent mortgage on a property, and we must be mindful of its effect on grand list values.”
Unlike many of its neighboring towns, Balderston said, Wilton’s grand list is “light on commercial real estate and its residential housing density is rather low,” which makes it “sensitive to changes in property taxes.”
Balderston said although he certainly encourages any effort to build the town’s grand list, “any initiative to do so — in the form of new commercial development or higher-density housing — would be a multi-year undertaking, the revenues from which will not be realized for at least two to three years.”
In the meantime, he said, “we continue facing significant declines in school enrollment over the next four to five years that require immediate action.”
Balderston pointed out that projected enrollment figures for 2018 and beyond indicate “an accelerating decline in student enrollment over the coming years.”
Wilton’s districtwide enrollment projections over the next seven years are:
- 2017: 4,120.
- 2018: 4,016.
- 2019: 3,923.
- 2020: 3,770.
- 2021: 3,662.
- 2022: 3,566.
- 2023: 3,482.
Coupled with “the fiscal turmoil in Hartford” that is “very likely to dry up much of the revenue-sharing dollars that we’ve counted on in years past,” Balderston said, “the task of right-sizing Wilton’s school staff to its shrinking student population” will be even more difficult.
“Unfortunately, we are just beginning to deal with a very difficult problem and we must be balanced in our approach to any real estate tax increases going forward,” said Balderston.
“The Board of Education … must develop and publish a strategic, multiyear plan which lays out — in very tangible ways — how it intends to manage down … its largest variable cost in tandem with this protracted decline in enrollment.”