Virtually no public feedback at school budget hearing
Of the approximately 50 people in the Middlebrook School auditorium, Glen Hill Road resident Stephen Hudspeth was the only one to speak up at the public hearing on Superintendent Kevin Smith’s $82,168,952 proposed 2018-19 school budget on Thursday, Jan. 25.
“I’ll take the chance if nobody else is,” said Hudspeth, who expressed appreciation of the work that went into putting the budget together, as well as concern about a 1.98% increase over the current year’s budget.
“We’re really cutting things tight,” he said, “and that’s a real worry.”
The superintendent’s proposed budget breaks down as follows:
- Salaries: $50,511,187 (2.92% increase from the current budget).
- Insurance and employee benefits: $13,697,500 (0.73% decrease).
- Other purchased services: $9,089,307 (1.90% increase).
- Professional services: $5,607,829 (6.33% increase).
- Supplies and materials: $2,200,791 (0.64% decrease).
- Property services: $684,0477 (24.20% decrease).
- Equipment: $252,276 (4.73% decrease).
- Dues: $125,985 (6.62% increase).
During his presentation, Smith mentioned the District Management Council (DMC) study conducted in 2015.
“I’ve been asked about the DMC study, and as many of you in the audience know, we contracted the District Management Council … to come in and take a look at the work that we’ve done in supporting our special education and struggling students. As a result, there were a half-dozen recommendations that they made,” said Smith.
The first three recommendations had to do with reading intervention, said Smith, “and I’m very proud of the work the district has done in response to those recommendations.”
“If you take a look at the way we provide our reading program, we have implemented a successful SRBI [scientific research-based interventions] program — we actually hired interventionists through the adoption of last year’s budget. That work progresses.”
Smith said the DMC study also analyzed the district’s related services staffing and “came back with some recommendations, based on their assumptions and analyses of national averages, around grouping sizes and national averages [in] other like districts.”
“Through that study recommendation, we have made some changes to reduce some of those services staffing needs in the areas of OT [occupational therapy], perhaps social work, counseling, psychology, etc.,” he said.
“There was an assumption made that if we just implemented all the recommendations out of the gate that we could just take $1 million or something like that out of the budget, and as great as that sounds, that is not the reality we face today … for a variety of reasons.”
Smith said the “complexities” of providing individualized education program (IEP) services, as well as services to students who have 504 plans, “serve as formidable barriers to any dramatic reduction in staff in related services.”
Wilton currently has the highest special education prevalence rate in its district reference group, DRG-A, which also includes the towns of Darien, Easton, New Canaan, Redding, Ridgefield, Weston, and Westport.
“We’re at 13.7, while the state average is 13.1, and the next highest in the DRG is Darien at 13.5,” said Smith.
“What this simply means is that we have more students being referred, more students who need assessment and more students who need service.”
With respect to the number of students on Section 504 plans, who also “require a range of supports,” Smith said, Wilton has five times the national average.
“With that being said, we are making headway in implementing staffing models and have seen success with those staffing models — first in our preschool through the preschool revision, and then beginning in Miller-Driscoll.”
Although the district has not made “dramatic reductions,” Smith said, “what we have done is reduce some staffing in [occupational therapists], speech [pathologists] and SPED [special education] paraprofessional services.”
“I think it’s important to understand that the work is complex and it’s long-term, and I would say that as a district, we’re committed to it,” said Smith, “and through our special services leadership and the support of the principals, we will continue to move forward with those efforts and move forward thoughtfully.”
Concerns and proposals
As he did during his presentation to the Board of Education the week before, Smith expressed concern about some of the cuts made in his proposed budget.
“I believe this budget may actually be too low, even though it represents a 1.98% increase over this current year’s spending,” he said.
“We worked hard to put the budget together and to put a spending plan in place that we think the community would support. In order to get there, I asked our leadership team to go back and to dig back into their budgets and make some difficult choices.”
One of those was reducing some mental health staff.
“Given the needs of our students, that’s not a choice that I can support,” said Smith. “So for the board’s consideration, I proposed three tiers of additional spending beyond the current proposal.”
Smith said he believes it “would be important to fund an alternative high school” for students struggling at Wilton High School because of things like anxiety, “experiences they have in trying to manage stress” and “some social concerns.”
“It’s our obligation to provide an opportunity someplace else,” said Smith. “Right now, some of those students are actually placed in private schools, [which include] tuition costs — and those places far exceed what we require in order to fund a program locally.”
Smith said a proposal for an alternative high school is in the works.
He also proposed adding back some of the reductions, including one full-time social worker position and some partial occupational therapists.
“We proposed to reduce special education secretarial support,” said Smith, “and we need to look at that as well.”
Smith said the Board of Education spent the previous three days engaging with school administrators “around the respective proposals in each of their cost centers,” and continues its deliberations.
“Similarly, the administrative team continues to examine these pending priorities,” he said.
Compared to surrounding school districts, Smith said, the proposed spending increase for Wilton Public Schools is “substantially lower.”
The Ridgefield superintendent proposed a 4.83% spending increase, Darien is looking at a 2.75% increase, and New Canaan’s school board adopted a budget with a 3.4% increase.
“This is a question we have to look at because, quite frankly, the school districts in our surrounding towns experience the exact same kinds of pressures, stresses and work that we’re engaged in here, so we need to understand some of the choices those places [make] and why those towns are coming forward and supporting larger budget increases,” he said.
Click here to learn more about the proposed budget.