In light of the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, Darien’s Board of Education discussed tough budget cuts last Wednesday night, April 29.

The town is attempting to reduce budget requests to lessen the economic impact of the coronavirus on residents. The efforts intend to keep the mill rate flat or no change to the tax levy. Read more here.

Wednesday night’s meeting focused on reductions to the 2020-21 fiscal year budget requested from the Board of Finance.

Board Chairman Tara Ochman began by explaining the need for the update.

The Board of Finance hasn’t issued a cut, but provided two scenarios for the board to work with. Superintendent Dr. Alan Addley shared that the board would have a charge of reduction being $971,000 or $1.6 million under the two scenarios. They also have a forecast of shortfall of $287,000, most of which would be directed to COVID-19 expenses. Addley went on to say, “We essentially have to make up 1,258,026 or 1,920,026 million.”

Director of Finance & Operations Richard Rudl’s memo explained the first scenario regarding a non-lapsing account. “A non-lapsing account could be considered to help offset lost revenue associated with the known budget shortfalls for FY 21, potential compensatory special education costs or capital projects. This would allow the Board of Education to reach the Board of Finance guidance while mitigating any significant reductions, which could alter the educational landscape of the Darien Public Schools or crucial support functions of the Darien Public Schools.”

Districts in Fairfield County that utilize a non-lapsing account include Westport, Norwalk, and Stamford. The second scenario would have the board not use a non-lapsing account.

But in total, Rudl and the administration came up with four scenarios, two for scenario one (1a and 2a) and two for the second scenario (1b and 2b). The first scenario would need a non-lapsing account available to the board and their balance would be deposited there. The second scenario would assume the account would not be in place and have to make deferrals, placing them at higher levels of costs from $358,000 to over a million.

Dr. Addley then said, “Cutting this amount of money should be taken extremely seriously. Things are fluid and can change. I don’t think we can make that number above without impacting programs, athletics, and even maybe teachers. Charge of this cannot underestimate impact on culture of the school. That’s what’s behind those numbers.”

Board member Michael Burke mentioned that Board of Finance Chairman Jon Zagrodzky wrote in the memo that what changes the board makes should not materially impact the delivery of education.

Addley responded saying “There’s no way of getting down to those balances without impacting programs for students. I appreciate the chairman’s concern to not impact the education.”

Rudl mentioned other aspects they will have to think about is not being able to rent out their field and the possibility that they might not have summer school. But in 1a’s scenario, they would have a $300,000 reduction due to canceling their unnecessary IMG membership.

In 1b’s scenario, the HVAC study at Holmes would be halted as well as carpet replacement at Middlesex Middle School and Darien High School. Addley mentioned that in any scenario, security would not be affected.

Ochman brought up that scenario 2b would affect extra curricular activities, programs, and staffing the most.

Disappointed with process

During the meeting, board member Katie Stein said she was disappointed that First Selectman Jayme Stevenson participated in the Board of Finance meeting on April 23, via call in, and Ochman and the Board of Ed did not.

“I was surprised that Mrs. Stevenson was present. Were you invited to that meeting? I think it would have been a nice opportunity for you or someone from the board to ask questions about the formulas they developed at that point prior to this meeting. I have a lot of questions and I wanted to put out there we were not invited to that meeting,” Stein said.

Watch the Board of Finance meeting here.

Ochman said that the Board of Ed wasn’t invited or given a line in to that meeting but added that Board of Finance Chairman Jon Zagrodzky had called both her and Addley earlier in the day to let them know the meeting was planned and that allocation amounts had been decided.

“But, no, we were not invited or part of those conversations,” Ochman said

Stein added in response that it was “really disappointing. I’ll just say that.”

Board member Dennis Maroney said he echoed what Stein had said and added it was unfortunate the Board of Ed did not have “a seat at the table.”

Board member John Sini pointed out that the meeting was public and anyone could have called in had they asked for the number.

“I just want to make something clear. Board of Finance meetings are public meetings. If you want to attend them in this eLearning environment, you can call and get a number to call in,” Sini said.

While he added that he didn’t know whether Stevenson had been invited or not, he said “that fact that we got a head’s up and didn’t attend is our missed opportunity.”

Ochman said she disagreed, saying if the Board of Ed had received an agenda or link, “we’d be happy to participate.”

She also said that the allocations had already been set at that point and added that the Board of Finance’s working group who put them together were working toward the best financial interests of the town.

“But it is just disingenuous to say it is our fault,” Ochman said.

Sini clarified that he was trying to address two board members saying that Stevenson had been invited and the Board of Ed was not.

“We don’t know the circumstances. It is a public meeting. Any of us can participate,” he said.

Following the Board of Ed meeting, The Darien Times reached out to Stevenson, Zagrodzky and Ochman to clarify Stevenson’s participation.

Zagrodzky said he “spoke at length and separately with Jayme, then with Tara and Alan, to preview last week's BOF meeting. I did not invite anyone from either the BOS or the BOE to participate directly, so I was surprised when Jayme joined the call.”

“She must have gone to [Town Finance Director] Jenn Charneski's office (she was dialed in) or gotten the dial-in number from someone. I was certainly fine having her on the call, but to reiterate, she had not been invited,” he said.

Stevenson clarified she asked for the number in advance of the meeting.

“I did not join from Jenn’s office but did proactively ask for the call-in number. I did not participate in the call until Jon mentioned my name in regard to a FEMA question. No one invited me to the call,” she said.

Stein said the update did not change her opinion she shared at the meeting.

“Thank you for the clarification from Mr. Zagrodzky. My opinion remains unchanged. The Board of Education was not provided any opportunity to participate in the Board of Finance meeting,” she said.

Going forward

Board member John Sini suggested that the board take public comment on what they have discussed at the meeting to help them move forward. Board member Debra Ritchie, as well as other members, wanted to know more about the non-lapsing account and if it was even a definite option.

Board member Katie Stein suggested that the Board of Education and the Board of Finance think of the effect of the budget in years to come. Fellow member Dennis Maroney said that while a third of students’ school year has been affected, they need to think of how the next year can be affected. Board member Jill McCammon also asked how they should approach the curriculum budget.

The Board of Selectmen recently reduced their budget to achieve a flat tax levy. Read more here.

Because of the uncertainties tied with the several scenarios, the board came to a conclusion to have Ochman speak with Zagrodzky. She would discuss the points the board made during this meeting, find out more about a non-lapsing account, and that if they hit the Board of Finance’s numbers, they will be hindering programs, student experience, and staff.

Next meetings

The Board of Education plans to meet on Monday at 4:30 p.m. to further discuss. The May 4 BOE Special Meeting will be available live through Google Meet. The Live stream will be here. The user name is: public@darienps.org and the password Boardmeeting504.

The Board of Finance plans to meet May 7, May 12 and vote on May 14. Follow the schedule at darienct.gov.