Board of Finance holds public hearing on 2018-19 budgets

Darien Town Hall in the snow — Diane Farrell photo

The Board of Finance held a public hearing for all things related to town budgets for the coming year on Tuesday night. While weather has kept people indoors for the past week, many braved the elements to come to town hall and voice their support for the proposed budgets. The hearing is set up to cover both the town and Board of Education budgets, but typically the education budget sees the most public comment. Tuesday night was no exception, as virtually every speaker was there to support the Board of Education’s proposed budget. In early February, 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 first speakers of the night were Wendy Ward and Beth Lane from the Council of Darien of School Parents. Both spoke about the feedback and talk the Board of Education has heard regarding rising expenses. Lane spoke about the changes in the educational landscape and how they contribute to rises in costs.
“To put it simply, we’ve experienced quantum shifts in our schools in the past decades,” Lane said. “Chalk and blackboard are no longer wholly appropriate.”
Lane is referring to the technology initiatives undertaken in the district recently, including a 1:1 technology rollout which pairs each student with a chromebook.
Lane also spoke about spending on initiatives in the world of special education that enable “teachers to meet students at their level.”
Ward also spoke about the tech rollout in the district, saying that “students exiting our schools” enter into “a technologically and socially changing world.” Ward also said that CDSP “represents all parents and learners equally.” This came as Ward made the point that average cost per pupil does not actually reflect the cost to educate any one particular student, saying, “a student athlete may cost more than a musician, or a drama student less than high achiever.” Ward said that CDSP supports the proposed budget, while acknowledging “there must be a balance between excellence and affordability.”
Mary O’Connell, the next speaker who has three children in the Darien system, came out to speak in support of the budget.
“We are fortunate to live in this great town full of people who care and want the best for their children,” O’Connell said, adding that she supports the school budget and believes it to be fiscally responsible. “After 20-plus years in corporate America, that kind of fiscal responsible close examination was music to my ears,” O’Connell said.
O’Connell also said she gave her children an assignment during the snow day, and it was to write something they liked about the school they attended. The oldest, a student at Middlesex, said that “I like that each student gets a chromebook and can take it home for homework and use it in class.” O’Connell’s fourth grader also said they enjoyed using the chromebook in school, and that they “would definitely consider giving money to Darien schools.” O’Connells youngest said, “It’s lots of fun to be there learning with other kids.” The crowd reacted positively to the feedback from the students, and Board of Finance Chairman Jon Zagrodzky joked that he was surprised none of them mentioned the Board of Finance as a favorite thing.
Wendy Hopper used her time to speak to react to people who have said that if the district improves special education too much, people will move here for it and take advantage of taxpayers.
“How is it that this is the area we should be careful about making too good?” asked Hopper, adding, “These families are already here. When starting a family, no one has any idea if they will need special education services.” Hopper said the district has already made a concerted effort to work on special education, and hundreds of students in the district receive services of one kind or another.
Hope Barton asked the Board of Finance to support the capital project budget, specifically for work at Holmes, where the roof is in need of replacement. Barton said that blue tarps are scattered around the library, and, “Last Friday there were damaged books and carpeting.” Barton acknowledged that these projects have high price tags, and it’s a lot to consider with major work planned at many schools in the district, primarily at Ox Ridge.
Josh Barenbaum has two daughters in the schools in Darien, and moved out of the city to town specifically for the school system. “We were looking at school districts, not houses,” Barenbaum said of his move to Darien with his family. However, Barenbaum added that other families with parents and children of comparable ages are starting to move to neighboring towns instead of Darien, and that is something that concerns him. “Our school system is our crown jewel. Just maintaining is no enough,” Barenbaum said as he voiced support for the budget.
A number of speakers noted that the 2.34% budget increase in Darien is actually significantly smaller than in neighboring towns. Theresa Vogt listed many of them, saying, “New Canaan is up 3.48%. Ridgefield 4.32%. Westport 3.97%. Weston 3.44%. Easton 9.37%. Redding 4.34%. Region 9 (Joel Barlow High School, shared by Easton and Redding) 4.16%,” Vogt said. Wilton’s budget proposal is just under 2%, but the superintendent there is concerned with that because the school district is deferring capital projects, not replacing textbooks, and not replacing instruments.” Vogt noted that those are all items that Wilton would likely have to address next year, possibly at higher cost. Vogt also said it wasn’t clear to her just where else Darien could make more cuts in the education budget.
The last speakers of the night were Tracy Marra and Abby Knot. They spoke about the importance of the social and emotional learning.
“As mothers, we understand the importance of focusing on the whole child,” Marra said, adding, “We feel these programs are a critical component of our children’s social, emotional, and academic growth and success.”
“Meaningful learning can only truly happen when our students feel safe and supported,” Marra said.
Zagrodzky closed the hearing by thanking all who came for their time, including members of the RTM and the Board of Education. “You took time out of your evening to speak tonight, and that’s a very important thing. We truly appreciate it, thank you very much,” Zagrodzky said.