The Darien Board of Education made the required adjustments to its budget for 2020-21 last week, which brought it in line with the Board of Finance’s set goal.

The total reduction to the requested budget increase, originally 3.4 percent, for a total budget of $103,521,534 was approximately $1.25 million. The reductions stopped short of having to cut personnel and impact student programming, which was a concern expressed by parents, school administration, school teachers and some Board of Ed members when the reduction was implemented.

Watch the meeting here

Part of the agreement reached last week was to the concept of pre-buying items to save costs, using money left in the current year’s budget, though not all board members supported all of it.

Background

The vote brings to an end a long and tumultuous budget season that began smoothly in February before the full impact of the pandemic hit in March.

In-person meetings were no longer an option, and the economic impact of businesses closing and layoffs meant both the process and the budgets had to be revisited.

Related: Darien’s dollars: Three boards, two budgets and lots of tough decisions

The Board of Finance requested both the town side and the Board of Ed cut their budget proposals (in the case of the Board of Ed, its budget increase), to either maintain a flat mill rate or a flat tax levy. The town side came in below the requested range, but the Board of Finance made some additional deferments. The Board of Ed came back with $557,000 left to cut after budget adjustments on the schools’ side. Schools Superintendent Dr. Alan Addley made an impassioned plea that the additional cuts would impact school operations. Ultimately, the Board of Finance voted to approve the additional cut and asked the Board of Ed to revisit the entire budget to make it work, pledging to provide funding if a critical need arises.

The Board of Ed process

The Board of Ed process has also had its own internal ups and downs. After the final finance board decision, some Republican members of the board held a caucus to discuss the budget, which raised concerns for some. This meeting was originally discussed at an RTM Education Committee meeting during which Jill McCammon, one of the board members who attended the caucus, said the process is legal. She provided the committee chairman Clara Sartori, as well as The Darien Times, the sources proving its legality. Read more about that here.

One of the items McCammon provided as proof of the legality was a video clip from last summer’s Board of Ed “retreat,” during which board attorney Tom Mooney discussed caucuses. You can watch that on Darien TV 79 Vimeo here, beginning at 1:32 in.

In response to a request about a caucus, Mooney said, “A caucus can be a quorum, but it isn’t a meeting.”

“Those circumstances are that if members of a single political party, are also members of the public agency, caucus, and that caucus composes a quorum of the board, nonetheless, that discussion is still excluded from definition of a meeting and not an FOI-able [referring to the Freedom of Information Act] event,” he said.

Mooney went on to qualify that this applies only “if the discussion is limited to members of the public agency, who happen to be members of the same political party, who happen to constitute a quorum, and third parties are not part of that discussion.”

Meeting the mandate

The reductions included some renegotiated contracts, budget adjustments due to changes in summer school, adjustments to the field trip budget due to those likely to be scaled back, reduction to updating the books in the library, deferring a guest composer, and other items.

The deepest discussion took place over whether or not to pre-buy certain items, thus removing them from next year’s budget and applying them to the current budget.

Part of the reason for the discussion is that the Board of Ed had originally asked the Board of Finance to keep the remaining funds from this year’s budget, approximately $900,000, in a non-lapsing account, which would have made further reductions unnecessary.

At the Board of Finance meeting during which the final reductions were passed, Addley also asked the board to reconsider allowing the Board of Education to retain its non-lapsing account. The Board of Finance decided not to set the precedent of establishing such accounts. Any surplus will instead go to the fund balance, the town’s main reserve fund with a promise from the Board of Finance that additional educational financial requests due to COVID expenses would be promptly considered.

Some board members questioned whether using extra funds to pre-buy items might make give the Board of Finance pause when new requests are made.

Board member Katie Stein said she was fully supportive of using $195,000 to pre-buy iPads for next year.

“These dollars have already been taxed for education and it saves us from cutting programs and staff,” she said.

Board secretary Debra Ritchie said the reason there’s a surplus is due to the students’ lost experience by losing the last quarter of the school year, and said buying now ensures a purchasing discount.

“We can still return a substantial amount of money” to the town, Ritchie said.

Board members John Sini and Dennis Maroney both expressed a concern about pre-buying too much in light of the need to likely have to go back to the Board of Finance later for funds, especially after the non-lapsing account discussion.

Board member Mike Burke said “I don’t fear the Board of Finance, I trust them.”

He said it would not be in that board’s character to make a decision on COVID related funds because “we didn’t give enough back now.”

“We are the Board of Education, not a board of deferral,” Burke said.

Stein added that “We aren’t pre-buying everything, just discreet items.”

She added that pre-buying has been done before in Board of Ed budget cycles and she wasn’t sure why “now, it’s a red flag.”

“I don’t fear the Board of Finance and we have the support of the RTM. We’re being responsible,” she said.

Board Vice Chairman David Dineen added that tech equipment had proved to be critical during the school closure and “We don’t know what fall is going to bring.”

“To continue to invest in technology makes sense,” he said.

Board of Ed member David Brown said he agrees he doesn’t fear the Board of Finance but said after the lapsing account discussion, he was cautious of proceeding down that road.

Stein argued that the pre-buying was legal and re-emphasized the pre-buying had happened “multiple times.”

Burke added he was confused by the implication that using the extra funds to pre-buy somehow would impact the trust between the two boards.

“I’m confused by the issue of trust and having to earn the trust of the Board of Finance. We’re the Board of Ed. We serve the children of this town. The Board of Finance has given us a target cut and this is one of the ways to meet that,” he said.

Board of Ed Chairman Tara Ochman said she wasn’t embracing the idea that “we have to worry about a vengeful Board of Finance.”

“That is not what the Board of Finance said they would do,” she said.

“We know our kids need this. We know we will save the taxpapers by pre-buying as much as we can,” Ochman said.

The pre-buying of iPads passed, with Sini and Brown voting against it. The pre-buying of textbooks also passed with Sini, Brown, McCammon and Maroney opposed.

The final discussion was around a reduction to budget control of half of that account, in the amount of $139,358. Some board members argued it was important to keep the flexibility of the budget in case there’s an influx of new enrollment in August. Ritchie pointed out that she’d heard from real estate friends that the market was busier than it’s been in a long time.

Addley pointed out that if he had options of cutting the budget control number versus other cuts, he’d take the budget control cut over teacher interns, for example.

Addley said when the original budget was discussed, elementary school principals opted for other sacrifices in order to preserve the teacher intern program because of its value. The board opted not to to continue to go through the remainder of cuts proposed after reaching the goal number.

Ochman and Addley thanked board members for their hard work.

“In some ways its been a contentious couple of weeks, and we saved as much of our bugdet as we could,” Ochman said.

Sini pointed out that it was important to “reiterate we didn’t cut into any of those programs people were worried about about.”

“Good work —we’ve protected what I’ve asked to protect, and what I think the board wanted to protect,” Addley said.

Ochman said the support for the pre-buying helped protect programming for students and thanked those of the board “who came around” to supporting it.

Board of Finance response

Board of Finance Chairman Jon Zagrodzky told The Darien Times this week that he appreciates “the efforts of the BOE and administration with regard to the budget challenge presented to them by the Board of Finance.”

“In the end, they identified $757,000 in operating budget cuts that could be made without materially affecting the educational experience. These cuts represent real efficiencies that benefit taxpayers immediately,” Zagrodzky said.

“As for the additional decision to use a portion of this year’s surplus to pre-buy equipment and supplies, I’m OK with this. It was clearly part of a careful response that sought to balance the needs of students and taxpayers, an outcome that benefits everyone. Bravo!” Zagrodzky said.