Wilton columnist: Reducing the school budget would be unwise

Stephen Hudspeth

Stephen Hudspeth

Staff / Hearst Connecticut Media

Town budget decisions remain an enormous challenge in the face of the grave uncertainty the coronavirus crisis has created. And we are all enormously appreciative of the leadership role our town boards have taken throughout this crisis and especially of the role of First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice.

I again reiterate my hope that our boards, and particularly the Board of Finance as our final budgetary decision-maker this year, look to our present situation not with fear but with a view to how we position ourselves best for the post-coronavirus future. I congratulate those boards that have made it clear that this is their general approach and hope that all can take a similar view.

Before us are some new data points with particular reference to the school budget but applicable more generally, too. The annual U.S. News & World Report school rankings that came out last month move Wilton down two notches to No. 11 out of the 200-plus schools in our state. That’s surely not catastrophic and can be explained by year-to-year anomalies and the methodology of that magazine’s reporting system. However, it’s significant to note that those neighboring school districts that moved up in the rankings are ones that increased their school budgets significantly over the past four years while Wilton held its own school budget basically level with increases in each of those four years of only 0.77 percent, zero percent, 1.62 percent, and zero percent again this year.

What is particularly concerning is that if municipalities throughout our country take the approach of significantly cutting back, they have the power to undo the bipartisan stimulus work the federal government has been doing. There should be a well-rounded approach to stimulus that supports municipal budgets even as it helps individual families, as it most crucially needs to.

The irony is that stimulus given to citizens across the board is a rather dull weapon in that some will need to spend the funds in order to survive while others won’t spend any more at all: all they’re doing is buying food anyway given how our necessarily wise confinement restricts our other spending opportunities. Municipalities are one very sure place to put federal funds where one knows they will go into spending — and much spending for the public good, especially in these times. In short, government at all levels can and should spend in a stimulus way when many people can’t or won’t.

But that kind of federal stimulus of municipalities (as opposed to school districts) has not been forthcoming in a CARES Act II as yet; so what are we here in Wilton to do for our town budgeting? Consider the following in addition to the obvious repurposing of funds where COVID circumstances have actually brought costs down:

1. Go into our town’s fund balance as I discussed in my April 9th column to the extent of the approximately $3 million by which the funds in that account exceed the 10 percent of town budget required to keep our AAA bond rating; that fund balance is held by state law very prudently in bank accounts and CDs that have not been impacted by the major drop in financial markets.

2. Put the priority on supporting first responders and town essential-service providers: police, fire, EMT and also managerial, custodial, and maintenance workers and teachers both to express our appreciation for what they’re doing and to reflect their central role in keeping all of us safe and maintaining as much normality as possible in our own and our children’s lives in such challenging times. Reject some residents’ recent calls for reductions in the ranks of our police and firefighters; this is when we most need to rely on our outstanding first responders.

3. Roll the school funds not spent from this fiscal year’s budget into next fiscal year as an account specifically for our schools’ use.

4. Note CARES Act support for Connecticut school districts to the tune of $100 million and anticipate further federal support for municipal budgets as a necessary step that municipal leaders nationwide are urging.

Keep in mind our future, and especially our need to attract new families and businesses to Wilton. Cutting budgets, the way some propose, would be one of the most long-term unfortunate things we could do: It exacerbates the economic downturn even as strained school resources and diminished government services deter the many who might otherwise come here. And local Realtors report the trend is beginning already of those seeking to escape the risks of congested big-city living.