The addition of four school psychologists at the elementary school level was the major driver of the proposed increases to the 2019-20 Board of Education budget, as presented to the Board of Finance on March 5.
According to the Board of Education’s presentation, there would be two psychologists in each of the five elementary schools in Darien. At the present time, there are six psychologists — one in each school and one in the Central Office, who is utilized for crises situations.
When giving her presentation, Board of Education chairman Tara Ochman said the budget was prepared with the philosophy of supporting children.
“We always look to maintain the integrity of our programs and make sure they are sound for our students,” she said. “We support district initiatives and we are fiscally responsible to the taxpayers.”
The Board of Education budget is “far more conservative now than we had been in the past.” — Board of Ed Chairman Tara Ochman
The proposed Board of Education budget is $100,687,103. This represents a 2.61% increase over last year. There is a $2,564,837 increase, year over year.
Over the last three years, there has been a 2.37% average budget increase. “Three years before that, it was 4.09%,” Ochman said. “The rate of inflation is just under 2% right now.”
Ochman added that the budget is based off of a zero-based budgeting program.
She said that 92% of the budget is based on contractural obligations. “This is made up of personnel, health, student obligations and utilities,” she said.
In regard to fixed costs, one example is IEP (Individualized Education Program) costs. “We can’t violate them,” Ochman said. “They are static costs.”
The reimbursement rate is up to 73%, “which is fairly aggressive of us,” Ochman said. “In the past, we have budgeted between 68% and 72%. We have done that with a bit of a shift in looking at the year over year rather than a holistic let’s stay within a range.”
Curriculum and instruction highlights in the proposed budget include project Lead the Way. (STEM at Middlesex Middle School), New Darien High School courses (digital photography, percussion ensemble, AP Computer Science), and a new health and wellness curriculum.
The cost per pupil in Darien is about $21,000. Darien’s cost per pupil went up with increased transportation, according to Ochman.
Addition of psychologists
The Board of Education is proposing that the elementary schools have a total of 10 psychologists.
The four additional psychologists, at $70,905 each, would be an addition of $283,620.
In deciding upon adding the additional psychologists, Ochman said that the psychologists’ day is filled up with contractural obligations that they need to provide to students.
“We were finding a whole other group of students that were looking for services, and in need of services, that the psychologist wasn’t able to [provide] because of time in the day,” she said.
She added that under the state constitution and educational law, “we need to meet the students where they are, when they show up on our doorsteps each day. We were finding students that needed a psychologist to be able to access their learning.”
Ochman said that at the end of the day, when the Board of Education looked at all the options, “the only one that really served students — in instances of elementary students in crisis that went anywhere from being able to enter a school building to being suicidal” —is the additional psychologists.
“We really felt that we needed to meet those needs,” she added.
Cost of SROs
At a recent Operations Planning Committee meeting, Planning & Zoning Chairman John Sini brought up the idea of having the cost of the school resources officers (SROs) go onto the Board of Education budget, rather than the town budget.
In response, Town Administrator Kate Buch said, “you can’t extrapolate out from the dispatchers a direct cost to the Board of Education.”
According to First Selectman Jayme Stevenson, while the SROs wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the need to have them in the schools, “those SROs need to remain police personnel funded and supported by the town budget.”
She said this is because they are officers who are available for routine police business “during the school day, after the school day, in the summer time, and so we bear the cost.”
She added, however, that “in the spirit of the season,” “our SROs certainly should be looked at as shared service between the Board of Ed and the town.”
Ochman, though, didn’t seem to support the idea. “The combination of the school and town budget goes to the taxpayer,” she said, adding she isn’t sure she wants to separate this cost out.
“It would go against the shared collaborative nature of this particular service,” Ochman said.
In creating the budget, Ochman said the Board of Education “is giving budgets year over year that are predictable, that keep cost savings in mind, and we try to do that as much as we can,” Ochman said.
She added that the Board of Education is “far more conservative now than we had been in the past. Anything that didn’t affect the educational needs of our children, we really looked to pull back on, and I think that we’ve done it.”
In regard to next steps, the Board of Finance will submit questions to the Board of Education in writing, followed by board or superintendent meetings as necessary.