Low turnout, mostly support at school budget hearing
Kendra Baker photos
No more than 50 people gathered in the Middlebrook School auditorium Monday, March 26, for the Board of Finance’s public hearing on the proposed $82,376,563 Board of Education budget for fiscal year 2019 (FY19), which reflects a 2.24% increase over the current school budget.
Board of Education Chair Christine Finkelstein said there are “many important items that either are not included … or are not fully funded” in the proposed budget.
“This is a very lean budget — there’s no mistaking that. We’ve been cutting and cutting for the past several years. There’s nothing left to cut,” she said.
“We’re dangerously close to doing damage to important instruction in our schools.”
In 1944, Finkelstein said, Wilton residents “spoke out against any efforts to settle on the type of education a Wilton student would receive.”
“I have to wonder: What will history say about the choices we made in 2018?” she said.
“Will volume two of the history of Wilton say that residents chose to invest in our schools even when the grand list was down and the state’s finances were in disarray … or will they say that 2018 was the turning point for the Wilton schools?”
Of the 13 residents who commented on the proposed budget during the hearing, 10 expressed support while three expressed opposition, uncertainty or criticism.
Bristol Place resident Michael Salit said the Wilton school system does provide “an excellent education” and he can “understand the concern for preservation” and “concerns for our children,” but the education board “has demonstrated in years past that they really don’t have their act together where their budgets are concerned.”
Salit noted that the FY19 budget proposed by the superintendent back in January was “pretty close” to the finance board’s guidance of a 1% increase, “but somehow or another, the chair of the board comes out with a 2.24% increase.”
The fact that he opposes this, Salit said, does not mean he is against education.
“In this town, I’ve spent more than $7 out of every $10, either directly or indirectly, to support education, so you can’t tell me that I am not supporting education,” said Salit.
“What I’m suggesting is get your house in order.”
Salit said he has 40 years of business experience under his belt and was not only personally affected by the 2008 financial crisis, but has seen “other companies and individuals” who were affected as well.
“Candidly, I don’t think there’s enough respect here in this town for all the hardships that people actually are enduring,” he said.
Salit said he knows the Board of Finance has been trying to work with the Board of Education to “get the budgetary processes in line,” but he doesn’t think the finance board has “done enough” to let the education board know “we’re watching [and] going to be watching and doing more to make sure that they keep their financial house in order.”
One resident who expressed support of the budget was Margaret Feltz, a Clover Drive Extension resident and mother of a special needs child.
Feltz said “the wonderful team at Miller-Driscoll” has worked with her son since he was a preschool student. Over the approximately five years he’s been there, she said, “he’s grown tremendously.”
“I moved to Wilton in 2005, well before I became a parent, and I willingly and eagerly paid taxes to support the children of this town,” said Feltz, “and I’m willing to support all of our children, whether they’re gifted, difficult or special like my son.”
Feltz said parents “all want the same thing for [their] kids — that they’re happy and healthy, independent and successful and challenged at the appropriate level for them.”
“The teachers, staff and administrators at our schools pour their hearts into what they do,” she said.
“I feel like it’s my … ethical duty, but it’s also my pleasure, to support the work of our educators.”
Nod Hill Road resident Max Gabrielson, who taught high school for the last 18 years, said he “strongly” supports the proposed budget.
Gabrielson said his family moved to Wilton 20 years ago because of the Wilton school system’s “superior reputation,” and his two children benefited from the “great instruction” they received in the schools.
“As a community,” he said, “the education of our children is our highest collective priority.”
Gabrielson expressed concern about “ongoing school budget reductions” in Wilton, which he said will “eventually take a toll on the quality of our school system, and that in turn will have a deleterious impact on our town.”
“Several years of significant school budget austerity will begin to have a very real and very negative impact on our schools,” he said.
“This will, without a doubt, cause home values that have already flatlined to decline further.”
Gabrielson said he believes the town needs to take the “necessary steps to ensure that our schools maintain their cherished reputation for excellence.”
“While it takes many years to build a premiere and highly-esteemed school system, the quality of that same system can be quickly eroded. That is why I want to see our school system fully and reasonably funded … to maintain the competitive advantage our town has enjoyed for many years,” he said.
“Home prices are one thing; the value of a child’s education is priceless. Education is a human capital investment — one that pays incalculable dividends over many decades of a person’s life.”
Gabrielson said he doesn’t mind paying taxes when he knows that his tax dollars are being “wisely and prudently invested in the children of our town.”
Glen Hill Road resident Stephen Hudspeth, whose last child graduated from the school system two decades ago, said he cares about Wilton’s school children because “they’re the future of our town.”
He said the proposed 2.24% increase is “really the minimum that we need to do to keep the educational course on track.”
“It’s not what we want to do — we want to do more than that, but it’s the minimum we can do and keep things moving forward,” he said.
Hudspeth said the town’s vision has “always been that Wilton will have great schools.”
“That is what attracts people here; that’s what my family here 30 years ago … this is the centerpiece of our town investment,” he said. “Preserve it, protect it, defend it.”
The Board of Finance’s hearing on the proposed Board of Selectmen budget takes place tonight, March 27, 7:30 p.m. at Middlebrook School.
With the budgets as submitted by the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Education, the Board of Finance calculated last week that the town’s total operating requirements for FY19 would come to about $128.1 million.
The finance board will hold its mill rate meetings next week on Tuesday, April 3, and Wednesday, April 4. Each will take place at 7:30 p.m. in Room B of town hall. If needed, a third mill rate meeting will take place Thursday, April 5, at the same time and place.