Education budget: Capital projects, mandates, technology drive costs

The district’s technology and capital plans caused a buzz at Tuesday night’s education budget board meeting.

The board also discussed the likely costs of full common core implementation next year and the replacement of deteriorating elementary school furniture, which as been put off for several years.

The Board of Finance came to the meeting early on to join the budget discussion. The members of the board have not examined the budget “under any kind of scrutiny” at that time, said Finance Chairman Liz Mao. “But we will thank you for not coming in at six, seven or eight percent,” she said.

The finance board is concerned about the high operating budget, Mao said, and the proposed installation of generators at every school. The district plans to install new generators at some larger schools and moving older ones to smaller schools. A generator upgrade at Darien High School would cost $300,000 — the single largest proposed purchase in the capital budget. The high school serves as a town shelter during storms, such as the Sandy in October. The costs at other schools would be between $40,000 and $250,000, depending on the building.

The district should consider how often storms occur and how many extra days of schools the purchases would give, Mao said.

Mao stated that other types of physical improvements that keep the students’ environment safe would not be cut.

Assistant Superintendent Dr. Judith Pandolfo noted later, during the equipment budget discussion, that the district has put off fully replacing elementary school furniture for about three or four years. They only made “emergency” purchases, and rotated tables and chairs between schools. Most of the furniture is now about fifteen years old, said Dick Huot, finance director.

The education board members asked to see a priority list for replacement and the life expectancy between cheaper and more expensive replacements. Preschool classrooms at Tokeneke and Hindley would not need additional classroom furniture this year, said Superintendent Dr. Stephen Falcone.

Mao also asked the board and district administration to follow enrollment numbers very closely and consider how large the budget  control account should be this year. The district was able to cover two and a half extra teachers “without a lot of pain,” Mao said.

The district was lucky to have some expenses come in lower and had to cut others, Hagerty-Ross and Falcone argued.

The district is asking for $249,864 for “budget control” this year.

The elementary schools collectively asked for a technology coordinator at each school. A current staff member would receive a stipend position — $2,367 per school — to check on equipment and provide other teachers with technology support.

“Over five years, the quantity of technology, the sophistication of it, the number of pieces of software, the use of technology has multiplied,” Pandolfo said. “Even though assistant principals are part of the process, it’s really more than they can do on their own.”

Technology spending, included in the finance budget, is expected to be high next year. The district spent $688,901 on technology employees, and this number is projected to stay the same. Software maintenance costs would increase by 35% with the proposed budget, to $347,900. There are no new software purchases so this number includes recurring payments for word processing, financial management, attendance and curriculum software.

Elementary school principals also asked for $23,437.50 to allow the schools’ secretaries to work 11-months instead of the current 10 to help with summer work.

Falcone proposed $50,000 for consultant services, specifically for enrollment and space issues. This number is based on estimated costs of a study of the structure, electrical functions and traffic the town spent to study the current senior center on Edgerton street, Falcone said — emphasizing it was an example, and not an indication of interest in buying the Edgerton site.

The cost of long-term substitutes would increase 33.33%, to $300,000, and this budget line depends on the number of people on leave for maternity or illness.

Due to new teacher and administration evaluation plans implemented by the state of Connecticut, the district expects to spend $120,000 for “research and development” of this unfunded mandate, said Falcone, superintendent. The evaluations would result in a rating for teachers that in turn would be sent to the state. Ultimately there are no state sanctions for individual teachers who perform poorly, other than more evaluations. The sanctions would be internal, he said.

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