For some Wilton parents, the Board of Education’s nearly $2 million surplus doesn’t add up.
According to town resident Diane Kuczo, many parents are "very frustrated that we are paying higher taxes" under threats to cut programs, increase class sizes and make do with fewer teachers or without freshman sports.
"Yet there are still program cuts in the schools, and then we find out we have extra money, so the programs didn’t need to be cut and our taxes didn’t need to be raised," Kuczo said.
Last spring, Wilton passed a $112 million town budget, and of that, $72.8 million was slated for the Board of Education. Now unaudited figures show the BOE running a surplus. Yet, many parents are confused as to whether it signifies good financial planning or false alarms.
In that, Kuczo’s frustration mirrors other parents of school-aged children. Every year at budget time, the Board of Education and its representatives tell parents programs will be cut if the budget doesn’t pass, Kuczo said in an email.
“I can understand frustration when budgets have been cut to pretty low levels in the past years and then we end up giving money back at the end of the year,” said Ken Post, Director of Financial Planning and Operations for Wilton Schools. “But you get a set amount of money and you can’t be wrong the other way, you can’t spend more than you have.”
Moreover, this year’s surplus won’t necessarily factor into next year’s budget. When putting together next year’s budget Post said he looks at which items caused the surplus.
For example, the surplus might result from a heating oil surplus, or from unexpected teacher retirements. And while Post might hypothetically budget for three teacher retirements, there could be four unexpected ones.
Schools, similarly to departments in private companies, over-budget out of caution, said Board of Finance member Andy Pforzheimer.
“They don't want to get caught short if they guess wrong on the medical, and have to get supplemental appropriations from the town, which is a big headache,” Pforzheimer said. “It's a balancing act as to how much this makes perfect sense, and how much of it is an overuse of taxpayer money.”
Nearly the entire surplus came from items unrelated to academics. They included Medical, early retirement and energy savings.
For example, in 2011 the schools spent $8.2 million on health insurance, but had budgeted for $10 million. Then, six months into the year it was clear the schools weren’t going to need that money.
Yet, Post said “It’s often six months into it by the time we knew with any certainty what it’ll [surplus] be."
Situations such as this have some on the Board of Finance members pushing the schools to adjust the amount of money requested in their budget. However, the finance board understands the BOE's fear of being caught short-handed.
“The schools self-insure. If there are fewer claims than expected—or rather, fewer than the worst-case scenario incorporated into the budget—then there is money left over at the end of the year,” Pforzheimer said.
Board of Finance member Lynne Vanderslice said the Board of Education budget, like any town department, is simply an estimate.
“Some years you might be under and some over,” she said. “Typically both the schools and the BOS are conservative in their budgeting as unlike a company, if they under budget they can't just sell more product. Instead they have to come to the BOF for a special appropriation.”
If there’s a surplus the BOE returns the money to the undesignated general fund confident that if a deficit occurs in a future year, the BOF will provide them the additional funding, Vanderslice said.
“So it stands to reason that if there's "extra" it would go back to the Town,” Pforzheimer said. “If your kid asked for $20 to go to the movies and get some popcorn, and it turns out the popcorn was less than he thought, and he had $2.00 left over, he would give it back to you, not keep it.”