Hudspeth in Wilton: Move forward very much rewarded

Stephen Hudspeth

Stephen Hudspeth

Staff / Hearst Connecticut Media

We’ve had a number of very lean budget years, most recently for understandable reasons grounded in large scale uncertainty. It was a great decision that the Board of Finance made when COVID-19 first loomed so ominously, not to actually cut back the budget as some people had urged because of those COVID uncertainties.

A decision to cut back, as things have turned out, would have really jeopardized our town going forward and would definitely have sent entirely the wrong message to potential new families and especially younger families with children searching for the right town into which to relocate from urban living. In fact, in its ratings of towns for excellence of living, Niche’s recent high rating for Wilton includes an A+ for our schools, a very significant factor in our overall rating.

Turning now to the coming fiscal year’s budget, the Board of Education (BOE)’s portion reflects a 3.02 percent increase. We’re necessarily looking, as a town, at making up for a lot of lost time in pre-COVID lean budget years and as a result of COVID-related expenses not covered by federal and state funding. We can either take the hit now of lean year piled on lean year, over past BOE budgets, that include a recent year with an actual 0 percent increase, or suffer serious long term consequences.

A school budget increase as proposed of 3.02 percent seems not only appropriate, but absolutely necessary. Consider for example what neighboring towns are doing. Many of them hadn’t had as lean budgets as ours over the past years to begin with, and yet their proposed increases this year are of that 3.02 percent order of magnitude, or even significantly larger. In fact, Wilton’s education budgets typically request the lowest increase across Wilton’s District Reference Group.

Also, our schools get no credit for the unused budgeted funds that regularly arise. Those budgeted funds savings, reflecting very conscientious and careful stewardship by our schools’ administrators and the BOE, are simply returned to the town’s general fund, or, more correctly speaking, are never drawn down to begin with and their total accumulation over recent years exceeds $1 million. By either measure, what is needed or what has been restored to our town, a 3.02 percent increase is eminently reasonable, as are the modest school related and significantly scaled back capital plans.

As to our school’s financial planning, 80 percent of costs consist of employee costs and union contracts cover the vast majority of those employees. In recent years, a representative from the Board of Finance has served as an observer in teacher-contract negotiations, caucused with our Schools’ negotiating team, and in some cases even presented to the schools’ negotiating team.

Our schools have done much strategic planning to help to restrain costs. That is how we’ve gotten so many low BOE budget increases, and been able to enjoy a return of funds by our schools at year end. Our schools, and town have also shared financial leadership services in recent years as a further cost saving measure.

Examples of those cost saving measures include: Health care cost containment, sharing CFO, and Facilities Supervisor roles with our town, and resulting, among other things, in elimination of the night supervisor position, saving c. $200,000 annually, special services programming at the highly successful Genesis, and Community Steps, saving as much as $500,000 annually in reduced outplacement costs, installing solar panels, and re-lamping, savings totaling $500,000 since adoption, and new copier contracts, likely saving $300,000 over the life of these contracts.

On a more broadly philosophical note: Consider what our schools’ teachers, and administrators have been through over the past two years of COVID, with disruptions in teaching, and new teaching methods having to be devised on the fly, yet very creatively crafted, and beautifully executed. There are so many good examples, yet the space available in this column could only, and unfairly to others, highlight a few; yet we all have seen how those techniques have worked to make the most of such challenging times.

We should ask ourselves whether the message that we as a town want to communicate to our teachers, and administrators is: Thanks for all you’ve done, and are doing, but no thanks in terms of the actual financial support you need. That’s not a very heartening message, nor is it one that we could take pride in giving. Over these COVID years, a generosity in approach with a willingness on our town’s part to move forward with optimism, has been very much rewarded. Let’s not jeopardize that by cutting back on what is needed now.