Due to concerns about the impact unfunded state mandates are having on Wilton's school budget, members of the Board of Finance on Monday told the Board of Education that they would like to see the cost of such mandates broken out separately in the budget, so they can get a better handle on what is "discretionary" and what is not.
During the annual meeting between the two boards, discussion ranged from detailed analysis of individual line items in the proposed 2013-2014 budget—which at $76,890,105 represents a 3.83 percent increase—to more philosophical questions about the factors that are causing annual increases.
When BoF member Andy Pforzheimer questioned an appropriation for $100,000 for ice time for the high school hockey team, the discussion shifted briefly to whether the school administration should revisit "pay-to-play" sports, but then asked whether they would ever consider cutting a non-core program due to its high cost.
"At what point do you look at the cost of providing anything—whether it be hockey, an extracurricular activity or even a non-core class—and say, 'You know that's just too much?'" BoF member Al Alper asked.
Assistant Superintendent of Schools Tim Canty said it is "a question of the district's general philosophy... " and that the administration continuously reviews non-core programs and cuts them when they lose popularity.
When Does Cost Count?
But Alper wasn't entirely satisfied with Canty's response.
"At what point do you consider cost relative to the overall burden of the budget —and including the interest of the students and the philosophy of the board—is that ever a factor?" he continued. "...I was hearing that 'we drive the philosophy into the classroom, the policy into the classroom—if we're undersubscribed, interest comes into it.' But I wasn't really hearing that cost was a driver."
BoE Chairman Bruce Likly explained that when the administration puts together its budget request, it takes into consideration what neighboring districts are doing, so that Wilton can maintain its competitive edge and continue to attract families to town.
He said the families in Wilton have an expectation that the board will be able to deliver the same services and degree of excellence that the other districts deliver and that the administration takes a certain amount of risk out of the budget by outsourcing services where possible.
In addition to state mandates being the primary driver of a 12 percent increase in the special education budget, Canty said staff training associated with implementation of the state's Common Core Standards will total about $150,000 in the first year. There will also be costs associated with the overhaul of teacher evaluations as per the Gov. Malloy's recently-passed education reform bill.
BoF member James Meinhold was the first to suggest the board attempt to break out unfunded mandates in the budget because it "could be useful in helping residents understand the impact of all the state mandates on the budget."
At least one school administrator supported the idea for the same reason, saying it could help stem the large number of complaints from uninformed parents regarding mandated programs and services that the district has no control over.
Likly, however, warned that highlighting certain programs and casting them in a negative light during a public session "is a slippery slope because we want to make sure we aren't calling out certain people or groups in our community," such as families with special education students.
School Budget Has Doubled Since 2001
Late in the meeting, Alper continued to question the school administration's approach to building the budget. He agreed that by breaking out the cost of the unfunded mandates, the BoF would have a better handle on which costs were at the administration's discretion.
"I moved here in 2001, and like most people in this room, we moved here for the school system," Alper said. "But during the past 12 years that we've been here, the [school] budget has more than doubled. My kids have gotten a terrific education... but I don't know if they gotten double the education."
Alper said while he understood that the BoE has to take into account neighboring districts to maintain academic competitiveness, the BoF is similarly tasked with considering "what the surrounding towns do relative to tax rates" — and holding down the annual tax increases for the same reason.
"My colleagues on this board, as well as many of my neighbors, are of the mind that we are at the apex of a tax rate that is going to put us into a death spiral," Alper said, adding that with property revaluations falling precipitously and a still-stagnant job market, "we can be as educationally competitive as you want, no one will be able to afford to live here."
Twelve-Year Analysis Needed?
Alper said it would be interesting to do an analysis of the major factors driving the school budget increases of the past 12 years.
"What did the school system look like when I moved here in 2001— in terms of the core curriculum classes offered, in terms of non-core classes offered, the number of in-classroom teachers, the number of out-of-classroom staff, and the number of administrators—and where we are now?" he asked rhetorically. "And for everything in between... what was driven by mandates? What has driven those numbers up?"
Alper said from his experience, it's become apparent "that we are so busy looking at the trees that we've lost sight of the forest."
"I can nickel and dime line items all day long... I've done that the last five years," Alper continued. "And everyone here will make an excellent case as to why a line item needs to stay intact — and damn, they're good answers. But arguably, that's not a good budget for the taxpayers. So it doesn't matter how good the answers are—we still need to make that budget better for the taxpayer..."
Likly said the school board has "done a fair amount of that analysis already..." however he alluded that it would take an unknown amount of additional time and work for the staff to break out unfunded mandates for the past 12 years.
Likly said regardless of what such an analysis might reveal, "it takes time to close gaps with other districts," and cautioned that there are implications to making drastic budget cuts.
"If we cut our school budget too deeply, the opposite will happen... we've got the crown jewel of the town," Likly said. "So there's a balance point... we're going to try to work with your board to create a budget that is representative of that... and we are also working with Hartford to try and get some of those mandates changed ... some of which represent millions in cost."
Meinhold pointed out that if one separates the 12 percent increase in the special education budget, which is driven entirely by state mandates, the proposed 2013-2014 school budget comes in at a 1.75 percent increase, which is within the BoF's recommended guidelines.
The BoE is set to discuss its capital projects for the 2013-2014 budget year with the Board of Selectmen at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday.