Board of Ed gets budget feedback in public hearing

In any year, the public hearing for the Board of Education budget, or any other town budget, is a well-attended event. It is the opportunity for members of the public to stand up and speak for, or against, a specific part of the proposed budget. Capital projects, new initiatives, and facility work are always some of the most talked about subjects.
This year was no different. However, the previous meeting saw board members point to areas they were looking to cut or add, and Dennis Maroney asked for discussion on the complete elimination of boys and girls freshman and JV athletics. There were also cuts suggested for the clubs and councils budget at all schools, and a number of other areas. Those were the places that the crowd came to speak about. After the hearing, the board received recommendations from the administration on the budget that would reduce the year over year increase to 2.3%
The Council of Darien School parents comprised many of the evenings speakers, with the first being co-chairs Wendy Ward and Beth Lane. Lane spoke first, and commended the board and administration for bringing a “responsible budget.”
Lane continued to point to the parts of the budget that CDSP emphasizes most, saying, “we remain committed to smaller class sizes, adequate professional development, enhanced integration of technology in the classroom, teaching that encompasses differentiation to meet the needs of all learners, and responsible maintenance of buildings. We strongly support continued funding in these areas as outlined by the administration’s budget.”
Ward spole second and seek more transparency and specificity when it comes to funding for academic and extracurricular services. “We’ve heard, multiple times from multiple sources, that the district should look to public and private partnerships for funding in order to keep budget increases to a minimum,” Ward said, adding that many of those partnerships already exist. “The district should be able to articulate a coherent policy regarding what it will fund versus what parents or community organization will fund,” Ward said. The board has said it plans to have a comprehensive review of funding for extracurriculars to address that very issue.
Kadi Lublin also is a member of CDSP and urged the board to take action on a facilities plan. “Patching up urgent problem areas is not enough to maintain Darien’s standard of excellent schools,” Lublin said. A clear focal point from Lublin was Ox Ridge. Ox Ridge will need roughly $6 million in capital projects over the next five years, and still likely will need more work after that. “A new build will allow the district to consolidate ELP and provide additional capacity to absorb students from new developments in town. Lublin also said that subpar facilities “are damage to teacher recruitment and retention.” Sara Parent spoke about another capital project that CDSP wanted to emphasize, the roof replacement at Holmes. Parent spoke about the serious problems that exist because of the roof, saying, “there are six classrooms on the second floor with leaky ceilings, creating damage and disruption to student learning.” Parent also said third grade hallway ceiling leaks when it rains, and there is damage to the flooring on the second floor due to leaks. “The ceiling in the library is crumbling and cracks are becoming increasingly large. During the rainstorm on January 12 this year the staff at holmes had to place large tarps over more than half the library’s shelves and furniture and place large garbage barrels around the room because the water was gushing in from the ceiling,” Parent added, highlighting that if this had happened on a non-school day, there would have been significant damage.
Sara Goertel also spoke on behalf of CDSP, and addressed professional development and curriculum refinement. Goertel sought updates regarding the department chairs that were brought on last year. “The department chairs have been in place for six months and we are interested in learning more about their effectiveness,” Goertel said, also pointing to the challenges that exist in transition years for students. Holley Cavanna also spoke from the CDSP, and expressing support for the ongoing 1:1 technology initiative.
However, there was a concern, as Cavanna said, “Technology can personalize learning experiences and make them more engaging, enable more project based learning, provide rich resources beyond the classroom, and help our children discover their passions and interests. At the same time, however, Darien parents continue to be concerned by the amount of screen time students are exposed to and want to be sure that the digital activities are well thought out and enriching.” Cavanna said that parents would like to see teachers get further professional development to make sure they are best using technology in the classroom. Cavanna also said that parents should be “clearly and repeatedly” educated on how to monitor their children on 1:1 devices. Millyn Gaaserud also spoke about the need to expand technology education, although her focus was in the classroom. Gaaserud spoke about her daughter getting advice from Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, that was simply, “study computer science.”
“It is critical our students develop a thoughtful and robust pathway for the study of computer science,” Gaaserud said, adding, “Today’s world requires leaders to have a basic proficiency and understanding of coding. We need to prepare our children to succeed in a world where programming is a basic requirement for most jobs.”
The social emotional learning initiatives for the middle school saw feedback from a number of parents. Amy Zerbe spoke about the increasing rates of anxiety and depression among adolescents. Zerbe also spoke about the story of Britton Barthold, a Darien student who first encountered depression in middle school, with the problem causing alcohol abuse and ultimately a near suicide. “Social and emotional learning programs can help out children before mental health issues emerge and can help those with mental health needs from getting worse,” Zerbe said. Marla Chandler also spoke about the social emotional learning needs that she hopes this budget addresses. Chandler said she has heard the sentiment is that most parents don’t seem to truly appreciate the need until their child is affected. Becoming emotional, Chandler said, “These kids are all of our kids. In our town, in our schools, we must support them.”
Alex Taylor, Linda Straubel, Tricia Bresnahan, Courtney Darby, and Kathy Degraaf all spoke together representing SEPAC. Taylor spoke in support of continued funding for professional development in things like Orton Gillingham instruction. “The special education world is confusing, and you don’t know what you don’t know,” Taylor said. Bresnahan also spoke in support of further professional development, particularly continuing the work currently being done with Dr. Marilyn Friend in district on creating inclusive learning environments.
The initiative with Dr. Friend is currently only at Middlesex, and Bresnahan urged that it be expanded to all schools in district. Degraaf spoke in support of Unified Sports, a program which builds teams of special education students and their typically developing peers. “Unified Sports promotes social inclusion and understanding for students of all abilities,” Degraaf said. Currently the program exists at DHS and Ox Ridge, and Degraaf asked that it be expanded to Middlesex as well. Straubel spoke as well, and like many other parents that evening, urged support and funding for social and emotional learning initiatives, particularly to deal with growing levels of stress and anxiety in Darien students at a young age. “As a community we need to address the reality that many students are stressed in our town,” Straubel said, urging that we need to educate students on warning signs and how to best get help. This can be done with professional development for staff and by forging relationships with health organizations Straubel said.
Another issue that saw a lot of response was the possibility of cuts to extracurriculars. At last week’s meeting, Dennis Maroney said he would like to hear discussion around the possibility to eliminating freshman and JV athletics. Board members also looked at reducing the budget for clubs and councils in the district. Sarah Neumann and Joanna Garrett, co-chairs of the Darien High School Parents Association, spoke to these suggestions.
“The reductions to the DHS budget the board is consider – eliminating the proposed part time assistant athletic director, all freshman and JV sports, a new tuba, funding for four new clubs, and the purchase of new art equipment – target the very programs that create a bond between our students and our school,” Garrett said. Garrett also pointed out that of the 66 teams at DHS, 21 are JV and 11 are freshman teams, and that between 950 and 1100 students participate in athletics each year. “This proposed cut sends the message that non-varsity sports are expendable, unappreciated, and undervalued,” Garrett said, adding, “it is a draconian and reactionary tactic rather than the reasonable, responsible and thought approach to budgeting.”
Neumann spoke at length and about the need for the budget for other activities to remain intact.
“DHS clubs and councils are a vibrant, engaging, enriching offering of extracurricular activities that extend classroom learning beyond the school day. The increase in this line item for DHS supports four clubs that have completed the mandatory three year vetting process, proving themselves worthy of official designation of a DHS club,” Neumann said. The process includes demonstrating interest and vitality, a clear mission, and finding a faculty advisor to serve without pay.
Maggie Cellar also spoke about the need to keep the athletic teams intact. “Like many, we’ve all chosen to go to this school because we are looking to build whole children. Eliminating sports should not be considered now or ever as an option,” Cellar said. Cellar added that for some of these teams it really is not about winning or playing time. “Whether they play or not is not the reason they are on these teams. It’s not about winning, it’s about community. It’s about being part of something. A lot of times we totally misread that,” Cellar added.
Neumann also spoke about the need for a new tuba at DHS. Another supporter of the tuba was Rob Werner.
“I’m here to talk tuba,” Werner opened. “There’s five tuba players and three tubas. A lot of saliva is in there, you don’t want to be the next guy up,” Werner said. Although some of what was said was lighthearted, there was a more serious message underneath. “I’m not a tuba parent, but I do recognize the enormous benefits the band program has for our town,” said Werner, pointing to concerts, the high school musicals, football games, and community band events. “Music is a lifetime gift, save the tuba,” Werner closed.
In the meeting that followed, the board heard recommendations on budget changes from the administration. One major change was the increase to a 72% reimbursement rate for Excess Cost, raising the number to $2,736,000 from $2.6 million. Other reductions and adds netted out to a change of $417,885 in the negative, for a revised budget total of $98,079,101, a 2.3% increase over last year. This number does not yet include any changes made to areas that the board spoke specifically about and community members address in the hearing, such as clubs and councils, athletics, music equipment, and a guidance counselor at Middlesex. It also does not include the increase of $286,057 that caught the board by surprise a week ago. Including that number, the increase is actually 2.54%. The document detailing all the adds and reductions by line is expected to be available via the board website soon.
The board will meet on Feb. 13 to speak at length and with more specifics about changes to be made to the budget.