Education candidates address budgeting, enrollment and patriotism
About 70 people gathered in Wilton Library’s Brubeck Room to hear Wilton’s four Board of Education candidates — Democrats Deborah Low and Gretchen Jeanes and Republicans Andrea Preston and Glenn Hemmerle — share their positions on school-related issues the evening of Thursday, Oct. 19.
Nine questions were presented to the candidates, including those about budgeting, enrollment and standing for the Pledge of Allegiance.
Candidates were asked if they would “seek to find appropriate cost-savings in the upcoming Board of Education budget to partially or fully cover” annual teachers pension costs if the state were to ask the town to contribute, or if they would ask citizens for a tax increase to cover it.
Incumbent Hemmerle said although he’d rather sue the state, the Board of Education has already started making adjustments, such as reducing its dependence on the Educational Cost-Sharing Grant.
“We are in a very competitive environment in Wilton with our surrounding communities,” said Hemmerle, adding that the board’s goal is to not “do anything that harms or detracts from the quality of education.”
“We will not sacrifice what we need to do for the students and teachers in Wilton schools,” he said.
Developing a budget is one of the most important things the Board of Education does, said Hemmerle, “and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that over the last few years.”
The Board of Finance’s recently issued 1% guidance for the education board’s fiscal year 2019 (FY19) budget, and Hemmerle said “it’s going to be difficult.”
“To be honest, I don’t know how we’re going to do it,” he said, “but I assure you, we always keep in sight the community’s needs.”
Developing the FY19 budget will be “a major challenge facing the board this year,” said Low, who has experience developing school budgets as a former superintendent of Ridgefield Public Schools.
“It starts with rigorous management and includes ongoing review of operational practices with an eye towards efficiency. We must search for creative cost-savings, including collaborating with the town,” she said.
“We can also work with neighboring districts and investigate shared services agreements and purchasing contracts that might lower costs.”
Low said budgeting requires a “really sharp focus” and the district needs to “protect targeted, well-researched and steady investments to protect [its] condition of educational excellence.”
Jeanes said she would be against adding $2 million to the education budget and asking citizens for a tax increase.
She also said she has experience “dealing with budgets” as a former construction project manager.
“One of my responsibilities was managing multi-million dollar projects and we were always dealing with having to cut things out of the budget to make sure that it was going to work,” she said.
“Trying to find out what we can take away [without affecting students and teachers] is something that we would look into while putting together a more strict, tight budget.”
As a Board of Education member, Preston said, she would “constantly be looking for efficiencies in the school budget … without sacrificing the quality of education.”
“I think we can just do our best to find savings,” she said, but “if we can’t find the savings, then there would be the potential that we would possibly have to ask the taxpayers.”
The candidates were asked how they would work with the superintendent to adjust to declining enrollment in the district.
When she was Ridgefield’s superintendent, Low said, she witnessed a “precipitous decline in elementary enrollment” and “the town was talking about closing one of its neighborhood schools.”
“I think Wilton is actually lucky because of the way we’re organized. We can take advantage when it comes to staffing because our students are on the same site in the same grade level,” she said.
For example, Low said, all Wilton’s kindergarteners are in one school, whereas other towns have kindergarteners in more than one school.
“I think we actually have an economical way of organizing the schools here to take advantage of declining enrollment as long as it hits in one grade [because] it’s more easy to cut sections,” she said.
Jeanes agreed that Wilton is lucky to have grade levels housed together, and added that the board has to keep its budget in mind when it comes to enrollment.
“We can’t continue raising budget if student population is going down,” she said.
Preston said she finds the topic of declining enrollment “interesting” because “we see sometimes there’s an expansion and contraction — we’ve seen that in years past.”
“Just this year, we had 70 more students enrolled in our schools than originally forecasted,” she said.
“I think we just need to be careful that decisions surrounding declining enrollment aren’t based on knee-jerk reactions, because knee-jerk reactions will ultimately negatively affect our children and the quality of their education.”
Preston said taking a “more thoughtful, pragmatic approach” to balance declining enrollment with finding efficiencies “so that we’re not putting too much pressure on the taxpayer” would be “ideal.”
”As much as we would like to think [enrollment] is a science,” said Hemmerle, “it really is an art.”
“We go outside for guidance to find what our enrollment projections are going to be. This past year we were surprised. We have approximately 70 more students than we anticipated — more than what our projections showed.”
If declining enrollment occurred all in one grade, he said, “it would wonderful … but it doesn’t happen that way.”
“We could have six students in one grade, eight in another, two in another, four in another,” said Hemmerle.
“Some people think we have enrollment decline so we can save money [by cutting teachers], but it doesn’t happen that way, sadly. I wish it did. It would make all our lives easier.”
However, Hemmerle said, the board is looking at the district’s class size guidelines, which are “about 10 years old.”
“If there’s an opportunity to move and adjust class size, we’ll take the right steps,” he said. “We’ll do the right thing.“
Pledge of Allegiance
One question that seemed to catch the candidates off guard had to do with Wilton High School students allegedly sitting through the morning Pledge of Allegiance.
The candidates were asked about their reaction to this and what they thought would be “an appropriate response position for our district.”
“Anytime I hear about students sitting through the Pledge of Allegiance or even our athletes on the national level not standing for the National Anthem, it pains me,” said Preston. “I don't like it.”
Preston said she thinks people need to “think about what the Pledge of Allegiance and National Anthem mean.”
“We live in America — we’re all Americans and we love America,” she said.
“We need to honor that and I think that our students should be standing for the Pledge of Allegiance.”
Preston said students could be sitting through the pledge “just because it’s the cool thing to do right now but really have no understanding why or what they’re doing.”
With that, she said, “I think it would be important for teachers to talk to the students.”
Hemmerle said it was his first time hearing about this and to say it bothered him “would be an understatement.”
“It’s certainly a teaching opportunity, but how can you not stand?” he said.
“Fortunately, we are a school system that says the Pledge of Allegiance — there are schools in this country that do not do it any longer ... and that is a sad case.”
Although he doesn’t know how many students sat through the pledge, Hemmerle said, “I can assure you that it wasn’t the majority [of students].”
“If anyone’s concerned about students’ patriotism or their love for this country, come to a boys basketball game and watch the student section [at the] end of the third quarter sing ‘God Bless America,’” he said. “It sends chills down your spine.”
Low said she believes “part of teaching civic responsibility” is teaching what the pledge and symbols like the American flag mean.
“Different symbols are taken to mean different things to different people,” she said.
Rather than “forcing an issue with students,” said Low, “you need to teach about it, debate about it and find out the reasons for and against it.”
“Try to find some common ground and find what it means to be an American and a responsible citizen,” she said.
“While there can be some variance in interpretation, I think the flag is certainly a touch-point and touchstone for many of us, so I think that we have to sort of teach our children well on that one.”
Jeanes said she finds the matter “a little disheartening.”
“The flag is such a strong symbol of our country but at the same point, I would like to know why they’ve made that decision and if there is some justified reason in their minds,” she said.
Although she doesn’t “agree with it,” Jeanes said, “we are in a country where we are free to make decisions.”
“I do feel that in the school system, as long as there’s respect and it’s a safe environment,” she said, “if someone’s going to make a decision and can come back and explain it well, it should be something that’s considered — not necessarily allowed — but there should at least be a little bit of back-and-forth.”
Polls will be open for Wilton’s municipal election on Tuesday, Nov. 7, from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Click here for election information and a sample ballot.