Board of Education approves operating budget increase of 2.34% for coming year

After a lengthy meeting Tuesday night, the Board of Education approved a final operating budget of $98,122,266 for 2018-19, a year-to-year increase of 2.34%. The board had been grappling with ways to get its budget number down, following an unexpected spike in retirement costs and feedback from other town boards and committees that the original ask was too high.
Board Chairman Tara Ochman opened the meeting by thanking the community for its feedback. “I want to thank the community for your outreach. We’ve received many emails with opinions, concerns, and thoughts. It’s always valuable for the board to hear,” said Ochman.
Public comment followed Ochman’s welcome, and a number of attendees spoke about proposed cuts of the JV and freshman athletic program, as well as cuts to the budgets for arts and music.
Julie Best, from Council of Darien School Parents said that she has gotten feedback that many of the cuts proposed “seem arbitrary and without context.” Sara Neumann spoke in support of the arts equipment and new tuba for the music department, pointing out that ceramics is one of the most popular classes at Darien High School. Other community members spoke about the value of sports to students and families. A point was also made that the removal of the athletic programs could have a far greater impact than anticipated, as college recruiting could be diminished with athletic quality, property values could suffer, and it would come right after community members were asked to donate for lights and other athletic capital improvements.
Ultimately, the places where the board decided to cut were in line with previously discussed items and administration recommendations.
At the end of last week, board member Dennis Maroney formally recommended the cut of all freshman and JV athletics from the budget, which would save about $270,000. When the motion to cut $152,510 in stipends from freshman and JV sports came up on Tuesday, the first of the cuts Maroney asked for, he spoke at length about his reasoning for the suggested cut.
Maroney said the decision “was not done in a vacuum,” and that he understood and appreciated the value of athletic teams, having children who were athletes at DHS and in college. Maroney said, “We need to review every item in the budget. If we refrain from discussing controversial topics, we shirk our responsibility to the public.” As for choosing sports teams in particular, Maroney compared the teams to other extracurriculars. “We don’t have a freshman musical or a JV national honor society. Should sports be different?”
Afterword, other members of the board spoke out strongly against the cuts. Michael Burke said, “I cannot support this cut. I am deeply troubled by this proposal. It is ill-conceived and should never have come before us.” Burke said that when it was first brought up, Maroney had spoken about the cuts as just a way to have a discussion, not to seriously consider making them; however, that position had changed. “To be clear, no program is so sacrosanct that it should be spared examination if warranted,” Burke said. He added, “That is what I had thought member Maroney was proposing with regard to athletics, but for reasons that pass understanding, his position has changed and now he proposes this cut.”
Vice Chairman Betsy Hagerty-Ross also came out against the cut. Hagerty-Ross said that “everyone in the audience knows the board is up here scrubbing this budget” to look for places that cuts can be made. “But a cut like this actually distracted the town, the parents, our supporters, and our board from looking for other places to cut that won’t hurt our children,” she said.
The chairman spoke next, saying, “I think that while I hear Mr. Maroney saying it’s an attempt to get the budget down, I find it sensationalistic.” Ochman cautioned the board to be careful when it comes to cuts that so seriously impact students. “I would challenge our board to be careful. Be careful with words and cuts that are used. You bring out people’s fears. You go to where they are most worried about, and that is not what we do.”
Board member Duke Dineen thanked the Darien community at large for its feedback on the issue, as well as its respect and courtesy. Dineen spoke about the multitude of emails and letters the board had received, saying, “Everyone started with thank you for the time and energy. Well, I thank you for the time and energy that you put in, too.”
Board member Christa McNamara also thanked the community for being so engaged and for offering so much response to the board budget discussions. “Thank you for so much of the feedback, thank you for being an engaged population, We’ll see where this winds up.”
When it came time to vote, Maroney voted in favor of the cut, and every other board member voted against it. All other motions related to cutting freshman and JV sports failed to get a second and were not heard.
Other major topics were the additional counselor at Middlesex, the assistant athletic director position, a new tuba for the band program, and a potential adjustment to the Excess Cost Reimbursement number.
The additional counselor at Middlesex was cut. Multiple board members pointed out that Principal Shelley Somers had herself stated the school was not ready to take on the counselor, as other social-emotional learning initiatives are just rolling out. Superintendent Dr. Dan Brenner said he would expect Somers to return next year with a clearer case for the addition of a counselor. Brenner did add that there are a number of ways social-emotional learning is being improved at Middlesex, and the counselor was just one part of what is being done.
The assistant athletic director position has been a subject of debate all budget season. Some members of the board understood that the administration sees a need, but again deferred to an upcoming conversation about extracurriculars, athletics in particular, as a whole and philosophical decisions that need to be made before making changes to the athletic program. When it came to a vote, the assistant AD was left in the budget, with Hagerty-Ross, Ochman, Katie Stein, Dineen, and Burke voting to keep the position.
The tuba cut was also voted down, meaning the tuba will be in the budget. The board voted unanimously to keep the $7,530 for a new tuba and not make that cut.
There were some places where surprising reductions were made. At Middlesex, the planned cut for general teaching supplies was $2,400. Brenner said he had gone back to administrators at Middlesex and determined that they would be fine actually taking a $10,000 cut. The price of oil is below where it was thought to be, so the fuel oil line that was set to increase by more than $26,000 instead stayed level.
The legal services line saw discussion as well. The budgeted number was $327,361, a figure Brenner said is much higher than in neighboring districts. Hagerty-Ross moved to reduce this number by $75,000. “One person has cost us over $100,000,” Hagerty-Ross said, referring to the FOIA requests of Jay Hardison. Asked for input on the cut, Brenner said, “I guess my thought is I hope we don’t need it.” Board member Jill McCammon asked what would happen if they did end up needing the money, and it was explained that the board would have to go to the town for funds.
Ochman weighed in on this matter as well, saying, “People really wanted a tighter budget. I’m fine with that. I’m not fine with where we go to cut the kids while we incur legal bills.”
“I would always rather make the case to support children and not pay lawyers. Sometimes we pay lawyers to support children, but that’s not the case here. I don’t want an individual driving our budget, I want education of our children driving our budget,” Ochman added. The motion passed, as the $75,000 was cut. The Darien Times has requested the FOIA request log from September through the present to see if the rate at which requests are made has changed since the log became public.
One of the final items discussed was Excess Cost Reimbursement. This is money the district receives from the state to pay for costs incurred in educating special education students. Originally the district budgeted to get $2.6 million, but an adjustment was made on an administration recommendation to raise that number to $2,736,000, a reimbursement rate of 72%. Maroney moved to further raise the number, up to $2,886,000. Maroney came to this number by using the lowest reimbursement rate the district has gotten in the last five years. He also referred to comments made by the Board of Finance chairman, Jon Zagrodzky, saying that if the Board of Education had to go back to the town because it budgeted too high a rate, that would be all right. McCammon asked if Maroney had factored in the recent budgetary proposals from Gov. Dannel Malloy, where once again special education funding could be cut, and Maroney admitted he had not, but said he was operating primarily on the word of the Board of Finance.
Brenner said, “If you come up short in funds, I have full confidence in Mr. Zagrodzky backfilling for you. He’s a man of his word,” and then Brenner added an explanation as to why this doesn’t necessarily solve a problem that would be created by this situation.
“The fact that he makes you whole does not circumvent you having to fill a hole the following year. It’s not a fix that is repetitive,” Brenner said, explaining that should the Excess Cost number need to be backfilled by the town, that number would still need to be re-addressed the next year and in subsequent years, which is not a good situation to be in.
Ultimately, Maroney voted for the number to be $2,886,000, and all other board members voted again, opting to use $2,736,000 as the reimbursement amount.
The capital projects that are marked priority one were all approved. The only discussion was surrounding the skylight replacement at Holmes School. Maroney and board member Deb Ritchie expressed alarm at the feedback they received during public hearings, saying there were leaks in the roof and buckets catching water in hallways and the library. Maroney asked if the project could be expedited, and Ritchie suggested possibly asking for emergency funding. Brenner said that after hearing the feedback, the leaks in the roof had been patched, and after a week when inches of rain fell in Darien, water was no longer coming through the ceiling. Brenner said the project could stay on schedule as projected. The final capital projects budget came in at $2,906,295.
The board made efforts to cut after receiving feedback from town boards and committees that the original budget was simply too high and perhaps trending in a dangerously high direction. The budget will now await review from the Board of Finance, followed by the RTM, which has the power to cut dollar amounts but not line items.