Wilton columnist: Don’t let fear be your guide
There’s so much uncertainty now that the natural reaction is one of fear: fear of not having the medical help needed to overcome the virus; fear of business failure and job loss; fear simply of the unknown.
I wrote last time about the pressing need for federal economic stimulus done with farsightedness as well as with provision for serious get-through-these-times financial support of individual families. Challenging times call for movement away from fear with eyes focused on the future: How can we move through the crisis and best position ourselves for when the crisis ends?
Folks living in densely populated urban areas may well be thinking now about the appeal of two-acre zoning. We’ve seen repeatedly in town surveys, including the recent very comprehensive one, that high-quality public education is at the top of what we care about and what prospective residents are looking for.
However, multiple years of very tight school budgets (four years of increases of 0.77 percent, zero percent, 1.62 percent, and zero percent again this year) are coming home to roost especially as neighboring towns have made significant increases in recent years, though New Canaan last week announced a school-budget cut for the coming year.
In Hartford school-regionalization hearings last year, we heard parents and students singing the praises of our Wilton schools as we all joined in the chorus of “hands off!” And fast-forwarding, it was heartening indeed to learn at the recent Board of Education public meeting via Zoom of the many creative ways our educators are teaching in these challenging times.
Our schools are the lifeblood of our town. They draw new families to us and represent our future. They shouldn’t be compromised in Hartford, nor should they be compromised at home. But how can we do that now? Shouldn’t we be cutting everywhere?
The Board of Education’s proposed budget increase is 2.58 percent, and we’ve seen our Board of Finance regularly cut proposed school budgets. Last year, the financiers cut away again. Then — faced with the consequences that losing the novel special-needs Genesis program would mean, and under First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice’s deft guidance — they restored that program at the last minute using a portion of our town’s Charter Authority funds.
That was a very important “brinksmanship save” of a program that in this, its very first year, has had outstanding results for its students even as it is saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in what would otherwise be out-of-district placement costs. Based on that performance, the program is being funded this coming year directly through the education budget. If one were to include the program in last year’s education budget, the budget increase for this coming year would be reduced to 1.99 percent.
Some education-cost revisions are to be expected given the impact of the coronavirus crisis (presumably driving some education expenses up while bringing others down). However, if there are necessary budget changes from coronavirus, make them with a view to looking forward and not hunkered down in fear.
Suppose the resulting proposed increase remains unchanged. Then go into our town’s fund balance. The unassigned fund balance shown on the last audit (as of June 30, 2019) is $15.8 million. In response to the protest that our AAA bond rating is premised on keeping the fund balance untouched at 10 percent of our town budget, $15.8 million is around $3 million more than we need for that purpose. Fortunately, the fund balance is required by state law to be invested in highly liquid and secure instruments like bank accounts, money markets, and short-term CDs — a very good thing given the recent gyrations in other investment vehicles.
In the film “The Sure Thing,” star-crossed college lovers are forced to hitchhike cross-country after mislaying their cash. As they struggle to find temporary shelter during a drenching rainstorm by trying to break into a dilapidated trailer, the young woman rummages in her clothing bag and exclaims, “Look! I found a credit card!” But then, crestfallen, she laments, “But my dad said I could only use it in an emergency…” With rain streaming down his face, her boyfriend’s reply is drenched in sarcasm: “Yeah, we should wait for an emergency.”
The fund balance is for use in an emergency, and if this crisis isn’t one, then what is? So, use about $2 million of it to support adoption of the BoE’s recommended school budget and also maybe even take a little more out to bring taxes down. If we do that instead of cowering in fear, we’ll be positioning ourselves well for our post-coronavirus future.