Even with a proposed increase of approximately $2 million for its 2010-11 budget, there are a number of programs and positions at risk in the Wilton Public School System.
The Board of Education held its first budget-related public hearing on Thursday, Jan. 21, in the cafeteria of Cider Mill School with an audience of more than 150 parents, residents, staff, and town officials listening on and chiming in. The night began with Superintendent Dr. Gary Richards' review of the $71,455,750 proposal, which reflected a 2.85 percent increase over the previous year's operating budget.
Richards lead off with a laugh, admitting to the audience that, "I'm reaching new heights of nerd-dom tonight with my headset...I was ahead of my time as a nerd and I like to think I'm carrying that on."
But the smiles quickly faded as Richards outlined a budget that, despite a proposed $2 million jump from 2009-10, will necessitate a number cuts. The current proposal operates on the elimination of things like the WHS sophomore mentor program, certain professional and curriculum development opportunities, select facilities refurbishment projects, new programs at the high school (such as AP Spanish Literature and Mandarin Chinese), fewer textbooks, fewer classroom supplies, and a number of staff cuts: 2.5 Full-Time Equivalent Teacher, 1 FTE Administrator, 3.5 FTE Other Certified Instructors, 1 FTE Custodian, and 1.3 FTE Paraprofessional positions would all be eliminated.
Such cuts, Richards said, were necessitated by substantial increases in employee benefit and salary costs, many of which are non-negotiable and to which the school system is contractually obligated. Overall employee benefits expenses, for example, are set to rise over $1.2 million alone, by far the largest single line item rise at a ten percent increase from the previous year. Certified Salaries, by comparison, are budgeted to increase just about $411,000 (1.2 percent rise from last year) and Contracted Services are slated to increase around $368,000 (8.5 percent rise from last year). All told, salaries and employee benefits account for 80.4 percent of the proposed 2010-11 budget.
Following Richards' presentation, members of the public were encouraged to come up and voice their questions and concerns to the Board of Education members who were seated at the front of the room. And speak out they did, in voice and in number, with 35 residents having presented by evening's end.
Despite the tax implications of a higher budget, and while praising the Board of Education members for drafting such a trim proposal, almost all of the residents who spoke said they believed the budget was too small and didn't want to risk losing services and staff that, once gone, they felt would be difficult to recoup in coming years.
"I have four kids, one in Miller/Driscoll, one in Cider Mill, one in Middlebrook, and one at the high school," said Lorayne McCabe, to laughs. "My youngest child is a special needs student...and if we keep givings things up, I'm afraid we almost surely will not be able to get them back."
Perhaps less at issue than the current suggested cuts is what would have to be eliminated if the Board of Education is asked to reduce the budget further. This list was also part of Richards' presentation and was referenced often in residents' concerns; it included: after schools clubs and activities, freshman athletics, the WHS Freshman Mentor Program, K-8 enrichment program, and classroom, library, custodial, and administrative staff. According to Richards, further cuts may also lead to increased class sizes and increased participation fees for sports, and perhaps even a pay-to-play method for some athletics programs.
Most of the audience's concern centered around the possible disbanding of the freshman athletics program at the high school. One resident was particularly worried about where freshmen might direct their energy without its structure.
"If you were to ask a lot of these kids how they look at themselves, many of them would put sports as a big slice of that pie," he said. " I am very concerned about the unintended consequences of what happens to these kids when they get to high school and have to look for other avenues to entertain themselves...I think that's a very dangerous concept."
"Many of the programs listed on the things to be eliminated are what set this school system apart," said Patricia Connor. "I don't want the only baseball my son is playing as a Freshman to be on the [Nintendo] Wii."
Residents also touched on fears that deferring a lot of maintenance costs deemed too expensive in the short term will come back to bite the town in the long run, as well as pointing out that in their efforts to bolster and maintain facilities and programs for special needs students, the board should be careful not to forget about providing for gifted students, too.
Despite the apparently general consensus that the budget was too small, not every audience member supported further increases.
"When you look at the budget and you see you only have a two percent increase...federal cost of living adjustments went up 27 percent from 2000-08, and taxes in Wilton went up 72 percent," said Alex Riskevich. "I would love a Lamborghini but you can't always have all the things you want...if fees are not put on the students, they are put on other member of the town, many of whom are seniors."
By the end of the almost three-hour hearing, most residents had departed, leaving the Board of Education almost alone in a tumult of empty chairs that made it look as if lunch period had just ended. Chairman Gilmore Bray thanked those that were left and seemed pleased with how the hearing went.
"What a terrific evening," he said in closing. "Anyone who saw the emotion and the passion that came out on both sides of the aisle...this was just an absolutely terrific evening. We learned a lot...It is tough right now, there are a lot of people who are hurting and the town is not doing that well financially...and there are going to be tradeoffs, I don't think we can deny that...where it will end, I don't know. I just hope that we continue to get the support from the school system that we got this evening and I hope you will all come out to vote for the budget in May."
Bray mentioned earlier in the night that the board may choose to have another budget study session on Jan. 28 before a formal vote is taken on it on Feb. 4 and it is sent to the town for approval.
Dr. Richards' presentation can be found as PDF attached to this file, as well as on the Board of Education's Web site.