Historically low: School district proposes 4.07% increase

Superintendent Dr. Stephen Falcone revealed his recommended 2013-14 school year budget at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting. The proposal is a $83,239,646 net budget, which would be a 4.07% increase over the last year. The 2012-13 budget was a 4.81% increase

“I don’t think you’ll find anything that’s more than an open book than this is,” Falcone said to a packed room, about the budget process.

The operating costs, which total $10,831,705, include $90,000 for software maintenance, $55,000 for textbooks, $275,000 for special education, and $80,000 for new teacher evaluation research and development, Falcone said. The new evaluations are required by the state. The district is asking for $231,455 to continue to upgrade the schools’ infrastructure.

The board discussed the cost of textbooks, noting that it might increase with full implementation of the federal Common Core standards.

Falcone recommended that the district eliminate the student activity fee, which raised about $100,000 last year. This fee, the board confirmed, was not originally meant to be permanent. It was proposed during “tough times,” Falcone said.

Despite enrollment concerns, the personnel budget would change 0.57% to include a language specialist position. The district would not fill a current program coordinator position. The teacher’s contract salary “steps” kept the budget down, Falcone said, as many teachers would receive a small percent pay raise over 2013. The raise would increase the following year.

Special education would increase by 1.89% — to about 23% of the total proposed budget.

Three department heads spoke about the music, athletics and high school budget’s at the Tuesday night board meeting.

The district could spend $6.58 per student on sheet music, according to Richard Sadlon, head of the music department. This category of “classroom reference,” would be the largest operating cost of $14,577. Sadlon requested an additional $9,724 to replace choral risers at Ox Ridge School. There is a furniture replacement five year plan, Sadlon said, and the risers are expected to last for another 20 years.

Mike Sullivan, athletics director, proposed a budget of $1,432,480 for athletics, health and physical education — a 3.25% increase. The major costs would be from negotiated increases for interscholastic coaches at the high school and $3,013 for a junior varsity fall  cheerleading coach. Heather Shea, board secretary, asked Sadlon why a new activity — junior varsity cheerleading — was not announced before budget season.

At Middlesex, a $42,045 budget “reflects current program use,” according to the budget report. Transportation for sports teams is proposed at $273,030, though the department has made efforts to limit bus use. Sadlon also requested $151,900 for high school facilities, equipment and uniform costs. There is essentially no uniform budget and the teams reuse faded uniforms, or rely on booster clubs and parents to replace them. Two-thousand dollars per program every four or five years would be sufficient, Sadlon said.

“We’ve had a uniform replacement schedule but we put it on hold for many years,” said Betsy Hagerty-Ross, board chairman. She suggested that Sadlon provide the board with the data of when the uniforms were last replaced and who paid for it. It is important to ensure “equity” between the teams, she said.

Based on the police department’s suggestion, he also increased the security budget for games by $3,454. Traffic officers or police officers, who have different per-hour costs, must be hired for a minimum of four hours, Sadlon said.

Also included in physical education expenses is custodial costs for when the YWCA uses the district’s facilities. This account would rise 32.08% to $35,000. Various board members expressed surprise at this balance. The district “barters” with the organization, and generally they exchange equal services, Hagerty-Ross said.

“We need to re-look at the way that we’re allocating the bill with the charges, so that an increase like this is covered,” she said. Hagerty-Ross suggested that new teams be proposed earlier in the year. Morgan Whittier, board member, argued that the administration has no way of anticipating “who’s going to show up based on the student body.”

Darien High School has one of the largest budgets, after special education and fixed expenses. Arlene Gottesman, principal, proposed a budget of $11,859,896, a 1.62% increase. The largest expense would be for clubs and councils, $142,925, which Gottesman called the “heart and soul” of the school. Gottesman also asked for $33,000 to replace science supplies deferred over the past five years.

Tablets for the science labs at the high school were approved last year, Matt Byrnes confirmed, but have not been received so the savings of switching to digital are not available. The district will form a committee to look at the costs and savings associated with digital textbooks and resources, Byrnes said.

Budget discussions will continue on Tuesday, Jan. 15, Wednesday, Jan. 16, Tuesday, Jan. 22, and Tuesday, Feb. 5. The board is expected to approve the budget on Tuesday, Feb. 12.

The Board of Ed will meet with the Board of Finance on January 15.

“I haven’t seen the particulars, but that number is still above inflation, so we will be examining it carefully,” said Liz Mao, chairman of the Board of Finance. “The town has been holding down expenses for the last few years, so this might be its year for some flexibility.”

Mao said these thoughts were only hers and not reflective of a board consensus.

“Our objective is to keep taxes low. People don’t like when taxes go up,” she said.

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