The addition of four psychologists to the proposed Darien Board of Education budget was strongly supported by most of the people who spoke at the Board of Finance Public Hearing on Tuesday, March 13. The hearing addressed the 2019-20 Board of Selectmen and Board of Education budgets.
More than 100 people attended the meeting, and about a dozen spoke.
Julie Best, a co-chairperson of the Council of Darien School Parents (CDSP), said the additional psychologists are “more than necessary.”
“Mental, behavioral, and developmental disorders begin in early childhood and they are on the rise,” Best said. “Parents are telling us that our children are in need and they support adding this staff.”
Best said that at the Jan. 15 Board of Education meeting, the principals described crisis situations, such as dealing with the death of a parent, divorce, social media bullying, and depression.
She added that, according to Mary Michelson, principal of Tokeneke Elementary School, “these things affect our children in our elementary schools every single day. We know that early intervention leads to improved outcomes, so it is reasonable to assume that identifying and managing situations early can prevent small struggles from becoming more complex and potentially more costly additions.”
Ann Gallagher, a Royle Elementary School PTO co-chairperson, said mental health concerns are a “national crisis.”
“We need mental health professionals available at all of our schools to serve the needs of all of our students, not just those receiving our services,” she said. “We need to continue to support the standard of excellence that our district has strived to maintain.”
John Sini, chairman of the Planning & Zoning Commission, spoke of his support for funding the capital request for the parking lots to Highland Farm.
“Without appropriate parking, the Parks & Rec cannot schedule activities at the site. Even with limited passive use, the temporary lot set up at the north side of the property is proving to be an inadequate mud pit,” Sini said
“Come up with a unified voice in Hartford.” – Board of Finance Chairman Jon Zagrodzky
Taxation, home values
Sini addressed his concern with the taxation and home values in Darien.
He said one reason he moved to town was due to “Darien’s relatively low property taxes versus Nassau County, LI. [his former residence].”
“Our community retains its relative attractiveness because of its reasonable level of local taxation. Unfortunately, Connecticut’s tax arbitrage is quickly dissipating, and we’re starting to see it reflected in the stunning increase in the inventory of homes for sale at lower prices than previous years, leading to a modest decline in Darien’s grand list value, despite the many redevelopment approvals approved by Planning and Zoning,” Sini said.
He added that “we are about to experience a budget chasm of the likes we have never seen. Yet, we are here tonight talking about a proposed budget that will deliver an average property tax increase of over 4% for Darien taxpayers, at best.”
“It gives me a sense that we are all whistling past the fiscal graveyard and ignoring what is in store for us in the not-so-distant future,” Sini said. “We can and should do better for our taxpayers.”
Darien resident Marian Cope spoke in support of the addition of three civilian dispatchers to the Darien Police Department, which was included in the Board of Selectmen’s proposed budget.
“This change will make our police department more efficient and effective as police officers will be deployed as a dedicated SRO for the middle school, and an officer dedicated to narcotics law enforcement,” Cope said. “An SRO will deter bad behavior and respond promptly in the event of inappropriate behavior.”
Regionalization, taxing district bills
At the conclusion of the hearing, Board of Finance Chairman Jon Zagrodzky urged residents to “speak up in Hartford” against the recently proposed school regionalization and taxing district bills.
In the ten years that he has been on the Board, he said this is the first time he has seen a “legislative threat” from Hartford that could have a “significant impact on what everyone here has shown up to try to defend and enhance,” he added.
“All of us need to stand up and start to pay attention to what’s going on,” Zagrodzky said.
The proposals to regionalize school districts and create separate autonomous taxing districts are “very serious,” Zagrodzky said, with the “potential for significantly changing how town government works.”
Zagrodzky said he would challenge everyone to think about taking the enthusiasm they brought to the hearing, to Hartford.
“Everyone should get informed about these bills, contact their representatives, and speak up in Hartford and make your voice known,” he said.
In regard to others saying, “‘Don’t worry, let the process play out,’ I promise you that if you do that, by the time [all the conversations are over], it’s going to be too late to influence these decisions.”
Zagrodzky welcomed residents to contact him directly, to come up with “a unified voice” in Hartford.
Amidst loud applause from audience members, he drove his point home by concluding his speech with, “Pay attention, get informed and get a seat at the table. Otherwise, you’re not going to like what happens.”