Facing more than $1 million in cuts to its proposed 2019-20 budget, the Wilton Public Schools superintendent and Board of Education may have to make some tough choices as to where to make the cuts.
One item which faces elimination is the proposed alternative school program, a new initiative, which was budgeted for around $480,000.
At the Board of Finance meeting on April 16, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice and Board of Education Chair Christine Finkelstein presented a proposal to fund the alternative school program on a one-year trial basis.
The proposal would have the finance board make a commitment to fund the program with its FY 2020 Charter Authority funds, a move which would not change the town’s mill rate.
Vanderslice said she contacted the school board chair out of concern that a decision by the Board of Education members to pass on the program meant they were assuming budgetary risk for the cost of outplacing students; students who might otherwise have attended the alternative school.
That risk, which appeared to have a high degree of certainty, Vanderslice said, would likely result in taxpayers paying more to educate those students in FY 2020 and in future years.
“I believe you have an opportunity as a Board of Finance to do something that is both good for the town and our students and their parents, and will reduce or avoid costs next year and in the future,” Vanderslice told the board.
“Students in the alternative school program would remain in Wilton, and receive individualized services from a team of dedicated and highly-trained teachers and mental health professionals,” Finkelstein said.
The alternative school would operate out of Trackside which, given its close proximity to Middlebrook and the high school, would allow students the option to participate in extra-curricular activities and attend school events.
“The alternative school is truly a win-win proposition,” Finkelstein added. “Our students and their families benefit from the ability to remain in Wilton and receive the services they need while the district avoids what could be a costly alternative of outplacement to a private school.”
She indicated there is demand for this program, with 17 students who are now outplaced who fit the profile of an alternative school student.
Wilton Public Schools already has a similar proven model. The Community Steps Program with six young adults has a cost of $275,000. Those students otherwise would have been outplaced at a cost that would have ranged from one and a half to two and a half times the $275,000, depending on where each young adult might have otherwise been placed, Vanderslice said in a statement after the meeting.
The Community Steps Program is housed at Comstock Community Center, allowing the students to remain in Wilton and be a part of the greater community.
Finance board member Ceci Maher was upset about the protocol for the alternative school agenda item. The item was not initially posted on the finance board’s agenda for that night but was added at the meeting by finance board Chairman Jeff Rutishauser.
Maher questioned why Vanderslice had discussed the matter only with Rutishauser ahead of time and not with her or other board members. She said she was not opposed to the proposal for the alternative school, just the process in which the matter was presented. She said she needed more time to review the plan.
Following the meeting, Rutishauser, a Republican, explained he was not trying to keep the issue from Maher, a Democrat, or others on the board.
He said the proposal from Vanderslice and Finkelstein came up just a couple days before the meeting and as a Republican, he was not allowed to communicate with Democrats on the board about issues outside of their meetings, under Freedom of Information Act rules. However, members of the same party are allowed to discuss issues, which are deemed “caucuses.” Vanderslice and Finkelstein are both Republicans.
Going forward, Rutishauser said, he will let board members know when there are last-minute additions to the board’s agenda.
With no action taken at the April 16 meeting, the finance board has scheduled a meeting for Tuesday, April 23, to discuss possible funding of the alternative school program. Since the meeting is being held after The Bulletin’s publication deadline, an update on the board’s action will appear online at wiltonbulletin.com and in next week’s issue of The Bulletin.
The Board of Education is meeting Thursday, April 25, to discuss where it will make the $1 million in budget cuts.