While the snowy weather kept most Darien residents at home on Saturday, the Board of Education and many others interested in the proceedings gathered to discuss the proposed 2017-18 budget. The budget amounts to $95,802,809, a 2.08% increase over the current fiscal year. Every aspect of the budget was discussed and the public was given the opportunity to comment on each issue as it came up. The entire budget can be viewed on the Darien public schools website.
Early presenters included the music, art, and library portions of the budget. Music participation is at an all time high in Darien, noteworthy because participation in the music program is completely voluntary. The budget requests amounted to the typical amount for music, along with money to replace and maintain instruments. The art budget was a similar story, mostly asking for money to better maintain equipment and for routine maintenance. Some of the materials used by the art program come from New Jersey and California, which makes them slightly more expensive. The art budget also called for an additional camera for the very popular digital photography classes.
The presentations covering Middlesex and DHS both spent a good deal of time discussing the same issue: stress on students. The budgets for both schools call for an additional 0.5 FTE in the guidance department, which would reduce the caseload for counselors from 192 students to 178 students. Principal Shelley Somers pointed to social media use as the cause for some students problems, and those students are actively seeking out counselors more often. “It is essential to have support for those students,” said Somers. Principal Ellen Dunne of DHS echoed that need for additional counselors, as the added position would be shared between Middlesex and DHS. Public comment noted that this is the second year in a row that this additional counselor has been requested, as well as urging the board to look at ways to proactively deal with the stressors and issues that have been rising in the student population in the district.
The physical education and athletic budget featured lengthy debate as well. DHS Athletic Director Chris Manfredonia broke down the budget. The heated discussion began when questions arose as to how much the district funds each sport, and how much parents pay for as well. It became clear that the current approach might not be something the entire board is comfortable with. As an example, parents currently pay for about 75% of the cost of ice time for the hockey program at DHS, which amounts to roughly $69,000. Some sports may have existing deals with the Board of Education regarding how much funding is given to certain sports by the town. This was pointed out by Vice ChairmanBetsy Hagerty-Ross, and more research is necessary to determine exactly what deals are in place, and the length of those deals. Board member Christine McNamara was uncomfortable with the approach, as she raised her voice to say, “this board and this administration should have the right,” to decide how these sports get town money.
The technology portion of budget talks also saw extensive debate. With the technology rollout in place, the budget has some significant expenses this year, with $624,575 for new equipment. That equipment includes iPads for DHS, 3D printers, more Chromebooks, and a virtual reality lab, along with other items. Marc Marin, in his presentation, also addressed a new cost of $22,800, which will be paid annually, for wide area network. “The state used to provide our internet. The state is broke,” said Marin, as the new cost was explained. During public comment, Bruce Orr asked if the board might consider capitalizing the technology portion of the budget, as it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars every year and typically contains capital project type items. The board explained this has been considered, but ultimately was decided against this year.
The looming issues at the state level also came up during special education budget talks, and were woven throughout the day. The uncertainty of the Education Cost Sharing grant amount has forced the Board of Education, and other town boards, to proceed extremely cautiously in their budgeting process. Hagerty-Ross also pointed out that the Excess Cost grant could also see cuts Superintendent Dr. Dan Brenner echoed this concern and agreed, pointing out that recent talks with state officials have made it clear that Darien is right to be expecting minimal money from the state, and news of more cuts could be coming within the next ten days.
The Board of Education will meet again on Tuesday night, and will revisit some questions asked during the saturday meeting. The Tuesday meeting will also likely look to advance the talks of the cafeteria expansion, as Brenner told Board of Finance Chairman Jon Zagrodzky that the promise to return to the cafeteria project off cycle made last year had not been forgotten. Zagrodzky welcomed the project, as all major boards are hoping that the expansion is completed by the beginning of the next school year.
The Saturday meeting was the jumping off point for a budget cycle that could prove to be tumultuous, but for reasons completely outside of town. Governor Dannel Malloy has recently said that everything is on the table to close the massive deficit, including new taxes. Should new taxes come, coupled with further cuts to state funding to the town, will likely leave the town forced to make very difficult choices about what is approved and what is not.