With Wilton’s public school system being one of the town’s “most valuable assets,” Board of Finance member Walter Kress said during the board’s Jan. 26 meeting, it’s important to make sure that the budget sustains these “great schools,” at reasonable costs.

Kress presented a report he and fellow board member Peter Balderston put together that outlines metrics for the Board of Finance to use as measurements during the budget process to benchmark against enrollment decline in the school system.

“After many years of enrollment increases,” said Kress, several forecasts have shown a decline in future enrollment, which, “at this point in time, we’re starting to experience.”

“For 2017 alone, we’re looking at … a decline of about 99 students,” he said, “and that seems to be a trend that we’ll see in the next five years.”

By 2023, according to Kress, enrollment in Wilton is “expected to be at the same level as it was in back in 1999. That’s a significant projected decline.”

Kress said the report he and Balderston prepared also touches upon student-to-staff ratio, school staff composition and cost per student.

Salaries and benefits paid to the staff currently represent 77% of the school budget and equate to roughly 50% of the town’s overall budget, said Kress. These, he said, are variable costs that depend on the means of the schools, including the number of students.

“We have to think about them and talk about how those can be managed to deliver an effective education for the children in our community, but also do it sustainably at a reasonable cost,” said Kress, who proposed looking at the annual rate of growth for staff.

While the number of classified staff has risen by about 3.3% over the past three years, said Kress, “the annual rate of staff has remained very constant over the last 10 years, dropping about a tenth of a percent.”

Taking declining enrollment into consideration, Kress said, this means “there will be needs for reduction in staff.”

“Obviously, you can’t maintain staff at the same level,” he said. “It has actually dropped from about seven-and-a-half students per staff down to seven students per staff over the last three or four years, and that’s the lowest level it’s been.”

While he is “very sensitive to the needs of students who have special needs for the schools,” Kress said, “we’ve seen a very large increase in that number.”

The number of special education students has increased by about 20% since 2013, said Kress, “and that’s very rapid increase when we look at how the total number of students is down about 4.6% and the number of [general education] students is down about 7.5%.”

With that, he said, the question is: “How do we effectively serve that population and do it in a responsible manner [in terms of] dollars spent?”

Acknowledging that some of the special education costs are mandated by the state, Kress said “it’s clear that portion of the budget has been a significant driver of the year-over-year increase.”

“The budget for special education is about $20 million a year,” he said, “and roughly 25% of the budget, making it important to pay attention to.”

The average cost per special education student has gone up to about $36,000, said Kress, compared to $19,700 per average for the total and about $17,000 for general education students.

This, he said, is something the Board of Finance would like the Board of Education to take a closer look at as far as opportunities for savings, “especially if, at the same time, they can deliver a better product out of it.”

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Finance board member Richard Creeth said he liked Kress and Balderston’s report because it's a “macro-view” of the Board of Education budget, which is how he thinks the finance board should be looking at it.

Board of Finance Chair Jeff Rutishauser said he believes there is “an opportunity, as a town, to take advantage of this decline in enrollment if we seize it.”

“As I’ve said for years, it’s not easy to do it because shrinking is a lot tougher than growing, but it has to be done,” he said. “Our neighboring towns are doing it and I think we also have to.”

Not only is it possible, Rutishauser said, but it was done in Wilton about 20 years ago.

“If you look at those enrollment numbers, it had to be done in that timeframe,” he said. “Now it’s our turn.”