State budget looms over town
The Board of Finance and Board of Education discussed a variety of topics pertaining to Wilton’s proposed $80,569,905 fiscal year 2018 school budget during their Feb. 13 special meeting, but the one subject that seemed to loom over everyone in the Wilton High School Professional Library was the uncertainty of Hartford.
In his budget address last month, Gov. Dannel Malloy indicated he wants to shift burdens to the towns to meet an estimated $1.4-billion deficit in fiscal year 2018 alone.
For Wilton, Malloy’s proposals would mean a more than $1-million reduction in educational aid plus a $4-million expense to help cover the state teacher pension plan, according to First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice. If both are adopted by the legislature — which appears to be taking up grievous dissent to the plan — they could mean an approximately 5% increase in Wilton’s annual budget.
At Monday night’s meeting, finance board member John Kalamarides asked the education board what it would do if the state required it to contribute to teacher pensions.
Superintendent Kevin Smith said the district would look at programs that support staff and programs that support students, and if cuts need to be made, “everything” that doesn’t contribute to a “core educational program” would have to be looked at.
Unfortunately, Smith continued, such areas would include sports, arts and other “things that we know kids must have to really enrich their full educational experience.”
“We have to look at everything — class size, increasing participation fees, deferring any planned expenditures, Library Learning Commons, the proposed capital improvements we’re going to make to the high school’s STEM lab,” said Smith.
“They’re all small things, but what we’re talking about here is, in my opinion, catastrophic.”
Board of Education Chair Bruce Likly pointed out that “Wilton is not unique to this.”
“The governor’s proposal will change the face of public education statewide. Ridgefield is going to have the same conversations, [as well as] New Canaan, Weston, Westport, Norwalk, Stamford,” he said.
“It will dramatically, adversely affect our district and every district in the state. It’s not a Wilton problem — it’s a state of Connecticut problem.”
The governor’s proposed cuts are not a given. His proposal is not a final budget, but is meant to provide guidance to the legislature, which must craft, debate, and vote on a budget for the next biennium, which will begin on July 1.
As a member of the legislature, state Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143) has said the governor’s proposed budget is “based on critical savings from union concessions that may never materialize — as was the case with the 2011-12 budget — and it shifts hundreds of millions of dollars of state obligations onto towns and cities. This would inevitably lead to massive property tax increases for households across the state. Ironically, at the same time, the proposal eliminates the property tax credit for homeowners.”
“In light of this new reality,” Smith said, he believes the education board “has to define what a quality education is today and in the future.”
Being able to predict what Hartford will do, said Board of Finance Chair Jeff Rutishauser, is “highly unlikely,” given recent history.
“They promised us ECS [Education Cost Sharing grant] funds, cut them, and then cut them again in the middle of the year,” he said.
“We’re looking at a whole new planning paradigm, and it is somewhat reactive to what happens up in Hartford. We can’t count on them. It’s a whole new ball game with the state at this point.”
Likly said there are only two levers to play with — revenues and expenses.
“If revenues are dropping from the state and we can’t raise them through the grand list or economic development, we only have one choice on the revenues side, which is ultimately taxes,” he said.
“Whether that tax is considered a participation fee or a property tax — that’s what it is.”
When it comes to cuts, Likly said, the bright side is that there are “a number of places” in the school budget to inspect.
“Obviously, we’re a head count-rich environment, and the most expensive head counts we have are in administrators and in teachers,” he said.
Likly said “a lot” of administrators’ work is tied to unfunded mandates, and there’s “a tremendous amount of paperwork that they push.”
“Is it good for kids? No,” he said. “Is it good for Hartford? I guess — they’re the ones pushing a lot of that onto us.”
Likly said the town of Wilton has a choice.
“We’re either going to look at reducing services to address the governor’s proposals, or we’re going to look at increasing the tax burden on taxpayers — or some combination of both,” he said.
“There are going to be some citizens who get it and tighten their belts; there are going to be some who are going to move, and there are going to be some who will fill our inboxes with emails. It’s just reality.”
Rutishauser agreed with Likly and said the town should start planning “in a very dispassionate way” for whatever Hartford may throw its way, while “recognizing that some of the cuts are going to hurt just like tax increases are going to hurt.”
“If Hartford says something, we have somewhat limited ability to say no,” said Rutishauser, “so I think we should start planning, knowing that something’s coming down the road — we just don’t know what it is.”
Likly reminded board members that no matter what changes they make to the budget, there will be backlash.
“Increase class size? A certain portion of our population is going to go nuts. Cut music? Another portion goes nuts. Cut athletics and another portion goes nuts. Cut language and another portion goes nuts. De-team and another portion goes nuts,” he said.
“It’s going to be a balance. It’s going to be ugly. It’s not anybody’s fault here in Wilton. It’s the reality that every town in the state of Connecticut is going through.”
Although the Board of Education will do “everything in [its] power” to “come up with scenarios that balance the load as best possible,” said Likly, “there is no pot of gold.”
“Somebody’s going to get hurt, and the reality is that it’s going to be the kids,” he said, “and that stinks.”