Finance board accuses Likly of using scare tactics

During its March 15 meeting, the Board of Finance fired back at a letter Board of Education Chair Bruce Likly wrote to Wilton residents stating that the finance board would “most likely” want the proposed school budget to come in at a 0% increase, resulting in a $1,016,000 cut.

Finance board member Warren Serenbetz was “very surprised” to read Likly’s letter, which listed several areas from which the Board of Education would cut, including the elimination of freshman athletics and all co-curricular activities at Cider Mill, Middlebrook and the high school.

With his letter, Serenbetz said, Likly “basically implemented ... the ‘Washington Monument strategy.’”

“In the federal government, when you don’t want to cut anymore, you tell them that if you cut, I got to close the Washington Monument, and that’s exactly what Bruce Likly did,” said Serenbetz.

“Many, many times we’ve had discussions with them [the Board of Education] about cutting the budget and I’ve never seen this from the chairman — they’ll get all the people riled up and the people complain — but to tick off all those things and that when we cut, my bet will be that not one of those things is going to get cut.”

In his letter, Likly said the Board of Finance “would like to see the entire town budget flat — including bonding costs — so there are no tax increases, which would equate to a $2.5-million cut.”

Serenbetz said that is “ridiculous,” and Board of Finance Chair Jeff Rutishauser said such a cut is “very unlikely.”

Rutishauser said Likly is “trying to shock people into voting.”

“We’ve talked about it at this board — if people want to be part of it, they’ve got to get out, let people know and go vote. This was an effort to shock the system, but we know they're not going to cut the football team and the lacrosse team — we know that’s not the case,” he said.

“If there is a cut that we’re asking of them, I’m sure they’d do a lot of things and not any of them, I’m guessing, would be on that list [of cuts mentioned in Likly’s letter]. That list is to shock people into getting them to do something.”

Finance board member Walter Kress said he was most concerned about the tone of Likly’s letter.

“This is not a binary issue that we’re facing here and I don’t think it’s reasonable for them to scare the public, especially those of us who have children benefiting from the schools, into thinking that all these good things that really make Wilton schools what they are, are going to go away,” he said.

“I have been a proponent of saying the school classes are getting too large. I have a son in school who has 27 in his class — I see that experience firsthand — so for them to say that they’re going to cut teachers, that’s not the really appropriate place and it’s certainly not the place where an elected board of education should be thinking about first in delivering a great education.”

Kress said he challenges that some of the fixed-cost areas the Board of Education speaks of actually are not fixed. For example, he said, “there is a lot of administration that I still can’t figure out exactly what they do.”

Kress said he believes the education board needs to “go back and look at some of those other small pieces” of its budget.

“For them to say, ‘Here’s what’s going to go away and if you give us a [cut],’ I don’t think that’s responsible,” said Kress.

“I do think what would be responsible would be to look at these things that we talked about and say, collectively, ‘Can there be another few hundred-thousand dollars that comes out that doesn’t impact what we’re doing?’ and then come back to the community — not with a Washington Monument or whatever you want to call it tactic of saying all these things are going to go away — saying that we feel a core responsibility for making sure that we’re providing the best education for a reasonable cost for this community.”

Kress said providing a quality education while being fiscally responsible is something the finance and education boards “collectively have a responsibility for” and is something he “would like to see happen.”

“I don’t think it takes a lot to head in the right direction, and more importantly — as we know what’s going to happen through studies that have been done — what are they [the Board of Education] thinking about already for next year?” Kress added.

As a Board of Finance liaison on the education board’s operations committee, Peter Balderston said he gives credit to the education board for its desire to do long-term planning.

Balderston said long-term planning is “absolutely essential” and something the finance board “should expect to see.”

He said he believes the finance board has “a very good sense of what the future’s going to look like from an enrollment standpoint, and that alone is going to be a major foundation to any guidance in the future.”

“In the schools that are currently experiencing the enrollment decline the most ... I don’t believe that the Board of Education has been reactive enough to reduce staff there to keep it in line with historic ratios, and there is opportunity there to save money,” he said.

“I think that has to be done, and with that, there could be an opportunity to meet some of the other things where they want to spend money.”

Kress said it’s important that Superintendent Kevin Smith has a long-term vision and plan that addresses “the lower enrollment he is facing with great certainty.”

“I’d say right now is when we ought to ask them ... ‘What does it looks like four years, two, three years out — not too dissimilar from what the Board of Selectmen has done and what they have presented to us as well. I think that’s a good planning tool,” said Kress.

“We need to get some vision that they know they’ll have to be dealing with this not just this year, but next year, with the changing slope [in enrollment].”

The education and finance boards will hold a public hearing on the proposed $81-million school budget Monday, March 28, at 7:30 p.m., in the Middlebrook auditorium.