After proposed 2.75% increase: Budget talks continue at Board Ed

The Board of Education held its first regular meeting of the new year on Tuesday night, and the discussion of the budget for the coming year was the centerpiece. The board had already begun speaking about priority one capital projects and the new Fitch Academy program, along with projected costs, at meetings in December and on Jan. 6. At the Jan. 6 meeting, the proposed budget for the 2018-19 school year came in at $98,511,340, which is a 2.75% increase over the approved budget from 2017-18.

The board and administration did their best to address questions from the Jan. 6 meeting, despite only being a few days removed. The questions and concerns covered a range of topics encompassing the entire budget. Superintendent Dr. Dan Brenner, along with Director of Finance Michael Feeney, answered most of the concerns from the Saturday meeting one by one.

The majority of the questions from Saturday were answered, but the specific hard data was not yet available with such short turnaround. These concerns will be answered in full at the Jan. 16 Board of Education meeting. Issues like the substitute teacher line going down at Royle, textbook costs, teaching supplies, some special education issues, and clubs and councils will be available at the next budget meeting.

There was brief discussion, brought by board member Dennis Maroney, and perhaps trying to find savings in the special education portion of the budget by better investing money. Administrators and board members said this was not a place to look for savings within the budget, as special education costs are simply too unpredictable. The needs and costs for special education students can change from year to year, and the volatility makes special education a challenging place to try and find savings.

There was also discussion around a program called Smart Music and its cost. The explanation the board received was that the program is for students to use at school to complete assignments for music class, and it was optional to buy the program for $40 to be used at home as well should the student prefer. During public comment, Theresa Vogt said that at the middle school, this program was not seen as optional. Students had to “sign into their account,” which presumably could only be done after buying the program, in order to complete assignments. Ultimately, the debate came down to whether this program was a requirement for coursework, or an enhancement. This would obviously inform the decision the board makes on budgeting for the continued use of the program.

More budget clarity can be expected following the Jan. 16 meeting, which is purely a budget meeting. The superintendent’s proposed budget can be found in its entirety on the Darien Public Schools website, along with materials from budget meetings that have been held to date.

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