Not all taxpayers satisfied with flat education budget
About 30 Wilton taxpayers made their thoughts and concerns known at the nearly four-hour Annual Town Meeting on Tuesday, May 2.
Most of the comments made in the Clune Center auditorium pertained to the $80,572,640 proposed Board of Education operating budget for fiscal year 2018 (FY18).
At the meeting, the Board of Finance recommended the appropriation of a budget for expenditures amounting to $126,804,522. This included the education budget, as well as:
- $32,034,470 for the Board of Selectmen operating budget.
- $1,174,406 for the Board of Selectmen capital budget.
- $11,767,516 for debt service.
- $1,255,490 for charter authority.
In an effort to “increase the efficiency of the meeting without impairing anyone's fair chance to speak,” town counsel proposed a new procedure from Robert's Rules of Order called “filling the blanks.”
The rules states that if a motion is made to cut a particular budget by a specific amount, the moderator will then ask for other suggestions to see if anyone else proposes a different amount. If several dollar cuts are suggested, each is considered and a debate on all suggested cuts follows. A vote is then taken on each proposed cut and voting ends if one of the them gets a majority.
The Annual Town Meeting adopted this rule and it was utilized by the second commenter, Calvin Road resident Alex Ruskewich, who made a motion to reduce the proposed education budget by $1.5 million.
Then, Walnut Place resident Ed Papp made a motion to reduce the education budget by $1.04 million, leaving three options on the table for discussion and vote: a $1.5 million reduction, $1.04 million reduction, and $0 reduction.
About 14 people expressed positive remarks about the proposed education budget, while about 12 expressed disapproval.
New Canaan Road resident Susan Graybill, who has lived in Wilton for 29 years and retired from teaching in the public schools five years ago, said “a lack of communication” has led teachers to distrust the Board of Education.
Graybill said teachers have “voiced their wish to be included in discussion and have been disregarded,” and “many feel the lack of [the education board’s] respect.”
Wilton teachers are “competent,” “lifelong learners,” said Graybill, who want to provide input on the changes made in the schools.
Graybill concluded by providing three suggestions for the Board of Education:
- “Slow down the pace … of new instructional changes” like the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and instructional coaching;
- “Take time to listen to teachers about how to best use money, staff and curriculum;”
- “Focus on building trust between teaching professionals and administrators.”
Tamarack Place resident Tom Curtin agreed with Graybill.
“Let’s rein in the horses. Slow down your staffing for coaching,” he said. “Let’s think evolution instead of revolution when it comes to the ways of teaching our children.”
While “many in the town are decrying the need for coaches for our excellent and highly intelligent teachers to implement UDL,” Curtin said, the case for UDL “has not been made.”
“From what I can see, UDL is not proven effective — certainly not scientifically,” he said, and it’s ”causing angst among teachers, students and their parents.”
“In my opinion, this [UDL] is an experiment where we’re getting coaches to teach the coaches to teach the teachers,” said Curtain.
“We have — as everybody points out — a great school system. The success has just been absolutely terrific, so something is not broken, but we’re in the process of fixing it with a bunch of coaches.”
At the request of Mountain Road resident Brian Kesselman, Superintendent Kevin Smith addressed UDL, stating that it’s designed to “promote further engagement in the classroom with the students,” and involves “multiple means of expression and engagement.”
“It’s really an umbrella approach,” said Smith, adding that the “methodical approach” has been laid out, but administrators have not yet talked with staff about it.
Smith said he agrees with Graybill that staff need to be involved in the process. However, he said, “we are only at the very beginning of exploring UDL” and parents, staff and others stakeholders will be involved in the process over the next two years or so.
Horseshoe Road resident Franklin Dunn said he believes a $1.5 million reduction in the school budget is “quite reasonable.”
“No one’s questioning how great the Wilton schools are or how good the teachers are. I mean, it’s a known fact,” he said.
“People wouldn’t be moving here if they [weren’t], so that’s not an issue — but there is an economic reality that has to be faced.”
Fox Run Road resident Eric Gustafson, whose children already went through the school system, said teachers have told him that the schools are “very different” and that his children “probably wouldn’t be as prepared for college” if they were in Wilton schools now.
“The reason is the teachers are not included,” said Gustafson. “There are technologies, programs, and administrators in between the students and the teachers.”
Gustafson said he believes the school system has “built up an administrator class that is overriding the teachers” and he fears that students in the system today will not be afforded the same attention and opportunities as his daughters.
“Let’s start talking about our wonderful teachers and dial back the administrator class, said Gustafson, who expressed his support for a $1.5 million or $1.04 million reduction in the education budget.
One of the loudest applauses of the night was for Carriage Road resident Gail Moskow, who moved to Wilton with her husband, Ray, 47 years ago.
“Like so many other families, we came [to Wilton] because of the outstanding school system,” she said, and “the schools have continued to be excellent for the good fortune of this community.”
For example, she said, “new neighbors recently moved across the street from us, and they came here with their elementary school children because of the schools.”
Moskow said she believes “the most important thing a town can do for its citizens” is “provide an outstanding education for its young people.”
“Excellent teachers, staff, administration, curriculum programs, and activities — these are things that make a school system so good,” she said, noting that the “biggest factor” is the teachers because they “make a difference in kids’ lives.”
Moskow acknowledged that maintaining “an excellent educational system” costs money, but said “it is worth every penny.”
“Times change, educational methods change, and technology has made a huge difference. However, good education costs more than it used to, and still, there is nothing more important to this community,” she said.
“Ray and I are very privileged to live here in Wilton, and to see life as it goes full circle. Thoughtful, caring senior citizens helped to pay for our children’s education when they were here. Now it is our turn, and we are happy to pay our fair share.”
After more than two hours into the meeting, a vote was taken on the proposed education budget reductions. Neither the $1.5 million nor $1.04 million proposed reductions passed, and the budget went to vote as is.
A few residents have stepped forward to the Bulletin questioning whether non-residents might have voted by standing up when they were not eligible to do so, however First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice said no one raised that issue Tuesday night and no one has come forward with a complaint.
Residents showed their voter ID upon entering the Clune Center and were directed to sit in one section of the audience. There was a separate section for guests and there were monitors in the auditorium.
“If somebody has a complaint they should file a complaint with the registrars and we’ll investigate,” Vanderslice said.
School Finance Director Dick Huot, Superintendent Kevin Smith, Board of Education Chair Bruce Likly, Board of Finance Chair Jeff Rutishauser, First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice, Chief Financial Officer Anne Kelly-Lenz and moderator Scott Lawrence listen as Washington Post Drive resident Ross Tartell speaks at the Annual Town Meeting on May 2. — Kendra Baker photo
Once the discussion transitioned to the Board of Selectmen budget, only a few taxpayers got up to comment.
Westport Road resident Deborah McFadden expressed support for both budgets and Stephen Hudspeth of Glen Hill Road said the town is “so blessed” to have an “extraordinary group of town employees.
Rockhouse Road resident Doug Cutler spoke about need for business development in town.
“It’s wonderful to have these wonderful schools,” said Cutler, “but if there’s not an environment for people to start businesses and thrive with that education, then it’s kind of silly.”
Cutler said Wilton needs a business-friendly climate that encourages “millennials and Gen Xers to open businesses here.”
If taxes were lowered, that would encourage people to bring businesses to Wilton, he said, and “then we wouldn’t have these problems that we’re facing.”
While he is “in full support of the schools,” Cutler said, “I do think we have to strike a balance.”
Capital projects and other votes
Also on the ballot are bonded capital projects for FY18 totaling $4,710,500:
- $2,794,500 for road repaving.
- $1,266,000 for a needs assessment study of the police station.
- $450,000 to replace eight tennis courts at Wilton High School.
- $100,000 to perform an engineering analysis, prioritize the necessary work, and eventually develop engineering designs and bid documents for the roofs at Middlebrook, Cider Mill and Wilton High School.
- $100,000 to replace the elevator at Middlebrook School.
Of the projects, the tennis courts received the most comments. While Curtin said he doesn’t believe the project is “absolutely necessary,” the majority of commenters — such as Olmstead Hill Road resident Larry Tucker, who spoke on behalf of the Tennis Boosters — were in favor of it.
Taxpayers will also vote on two Board of Selectmen motions:
- To discontinue Old Two Rod Highway — a 33-foot-wide dirt path extending north from the dead end of Wampum Hill Road toward the old Gilbert & Bennett wire mill — as a town road.
- To bring Wilton’s liquor ordinance in line with state statutes by extending the hours restaurants and bars may serve alcoholic beverages.
If fewer than 15% of Wilton’s registered voters come out to vote, the budget will pass automatically, but the questions on capital projects to be bonded will not. They must pass by a simple majority.
Voting took place after the Annual Town Meeting. Those who were unable to attend the Annual Town Meeting will be able to cast their votes Saturday, May 6, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., at the Clune Center.
Absentee ballots are available at the town clerk’s office in town hall, 238 Danbury Road, and must be completed and returned to the town clerk’s office by 4:30 p.m. on Friday, May 5, to be counted.
(This story has been edited to expand on voting procedures and reflect a comment by First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice.)