Very low turnout at Wilton school budget presentation, conversation

The number of people at the superintendent’s proposed school budget public hearing on Thursday, Jan. 28, could be counted on one hand.

At the start of the 7 p.m. budget presentation and community conversation in the Cider Mill School cafeteria, only five people — excluding school staff and Board of Education members — were in attendance.

Nonetheless, Superintendent Kevin Smith presented the proposed budget, which has gone from $81,107,310 to $80,972,640, thanks to a revised natural gas estimate from the Wilton Energy Commission, which reduced the proposed cost of utilities by $134,670.

The proposed budget, which now reflects a 1.27% increase over the current budget, allocates:

  • $49,696,710 to salaries.

  • $13,703,882 to employee benefits.

  • $4,066,446 to purchased professional services.

  • $1,256,742 to purchased property services.

  • $9,493,443 to other purchased services, including transportation.

  • $1,586,820 to supplies.

  • $1,168,597 to equipment and “other.”

The overall proposed budget breaks down as follows:

  • Salaries: 60.3%.

  • Employee benefits: 16.9%.

  • Contracted services, outplacements, supplies and equipment: 14.2%.

  • Transportation: 4.8%.

  • Buildings, operations and facilities: 2.8%.

  • Substitutes: 1%.

The budget reflects a decrease of 6.65 FTE (full-time equivalent), which would save the district an estimated $476,477, and 25% of the budget is contained in special services.

Smith said the district is working “diligently to manage costs while investing in our vision and priorities,” which focus on performance, opportunity and continuous improvement.

Smith said the expansion of enrichment and arts opportunities for grades 3-8 “remains a priority and is reflected through proposed expenditure increases at Cider Mill and Middlebrook.”

He also noted that “the continued development of our Learning Commons and technology initiatives is prioritized through significant expenditures in infrastructure upgrades, device acquisitions and increases in personnel support.”

Community conversation

By the end of the superintendent’s presentation, a few more people had gathered inside the Cider Mill cafeteria in time for the community conversation portion of the hearing.

Ridgefield Road resident Robin Clune, wife of Selectman David Clune and mother of Cider Mill and Middlebrook students, inquired about staff and class sizes and asked how the district decides to add or take away a teacher.

“Class size is tricky, and we’ve had lots and lots of conversations about the research around class size,” said Smith. “Our range is 20 to 24 [students].”

Cider Mill Principal Jennifer Mitchell said the class sizes at her school are “larger than they’ve been in the past,” but she believes that the teachers are “meeting the needs of the kids.”

“Once we exceed 24, particularly at the elementary levels, I think that’s where we start to look at whether or not we need to add back a teacher,” said Smith, “but we’ve been monitoring those classrooms where there’s 23 or 24 students, and we’re doing well.”

A mother of Wilton High School and Cider Mill students voiced her concerns about the district’s technology infrastructure — “or lack thereof,” she said.

“My son here at Cider Mill was taking a math test yesterday and the Chromebooks had no connection to wi-fi, so 15 to 20 minutes of instructional learning time was just lost for that,” she said.

“All the wonderful equipment that money is being spent to purchase does not do very much good if we don’t have the support of the networks.”

With strengthening technology infrastructure and support and increasing technology access being two of the district’s instructional priorities, Smith said the district is currently “building toward a platform that will support one-to-one” wireless access.

Technology Director Mathew Hepfer said the district spent the summer installing fiber connections and switching that can handle 10GB speed, but “realized early on this year that we still didn’t have enough access points.”

In February, Hepfer said, access points will be installed in every classroom at the high school, which should lead to “significant improvement.”

“That same plan is going to happen at all of the schools. Cider Mill still needs that backbone, and so that’s part of the investment we have built in the budget for next year,” he said.

“We did half of the work at Cider Mill last year, but budgets being what they were, we couldn't really afford the investment to do all the schools last year.”

Hepfer said the Miller-Driscoll renovation project includes upgrades to the school’s core switch and main data closet and “once we start this school year in the fall, we should have significant improvement if this budget passes as it is.”

One resident noted that the proposed school budget exceeds the Board of Finance’s 1.1% guidance and asked what could be cut from the school budget if needed.

“I have no interest in playing a game where we build the budget knowing that there are going to be cuts. I don’t think that’s appropriate,” said Smith. “The staff and I have … built the budget on things we need. We look at this very carefully.”

However, if the Board of Finance were to make some cuts, Smith said, “we’re going to have to let go of some things.”

“We do have a list [of] some areas that we’d look at,” he said. “We’d try to stay away from further personnel reductions, so we might look at technology and other expenditures.”

A mother of two students who went through the Wilton school system said she thinks students voices need to be heard when it comes to their experiences in the classroom and with teachers.

“I think the kids’ voices are not heard. No one knows more about [a] teacher and the things that go on than the kids in that classroom,” she said.

“I would love the kids to have more of a voice … and I really think the kids need a bigger input in the evaluation process. The kids will give you so much more information than any testing or meeting.”

Click here to view the superintendent’s proposed budget presentation.