Board of Education told that budget needs to be cut
After unveiling the 8 percent increase for the 2011-2012 school year, the Board of Education came under fire from the Board of Finance for proposing what BOF members called an excessive budget.
Although many of the expenses facing the district are personnel costs, Board of Finance Chairman Liz Mao said the budget was simply too high and unacceptable for the current economic state of the town.
"Over the last few years you have made significant increases to your budget," Mao said. "Recently, your budget has been increasing at a higher rate than enrollment.
Superintendent Stephen Falcone projected that enrollment would increase at the schools by about 30 students for the 2011-2012 year. Falcone also pointed out that the town is losing about $450,000 in state funding next year.
Mao said the BOF would not set a firm number for the budget, but she did say that the BOE must justify all of its expenses to the Darien taxpayers.
"Looking at the 8 percent increase, we can't comment because it is just too high," Mao said.
Mao said consideration should be given to Darien residents who were struggling with employment.
BOF member Murray Stegelmann also commented on the budget by suggesting the schools look at the labor union contracts to see if a better deal could be negotiated.
BOE Chairwoman Kimberly Westcott agreed with the idea that the increases must be justified. However, she noted that a large portion of the budget dealt with contractual obligations as well as enrollment increases, which continue to be a major factor in determining the budget increase.
Falcone presented the preliminary budget proposal last week and acknowledged that steps were being taken to alleviate the burden on tax payers while still maintaining strong programs as the schools. The 2011-2012 proposed school budget is $5,696,221 which represents an 8 percent increase from last year. A breakdown of the budget shows that $2.5 million represents personnel costs, $1.4 million is for operating costs, $217,884 covers equipment costs and $1.6 million is for fixed expenses.
Personnel continues to represent the highest expenditure for the schools.
In his proposed budget, Falcone said the money being requested would enable the schools to continue offering the highest quality of education.
The total budget for the 2010-2011 school year was $71,512,041, which represented a 4 percent increase from the previous year, Falcone said. Much of the costs associated with the budget were due to personnel costs.
Even as the Darien schools continue to grow, additional students require more staff which continues to tax the budget, Falcone said. Currently, Darien has the highest percentage of students who are 18 and under in the state.
In order to help reign in costs, Falcone's proposal said a number of steps are being taken such as purchasing items in bulk and deferring purchases of items and the introduction of new programs.
In comparison to other towns in the same District Reference Group, Darien spends $1,000 less than the DRG average per student and $2,000 less than New Canaan and Westport spend.
In order to maintain the current staffing levels as the schools, 4.4 percent of the total budget must go towards personnel costs, the proposal says. The proposal attributes the increase in the budget to increases in salaries and benefit costs.
"For the most part, we have limited our budget proposals to the minimum increases necessary to maintain the current level of service for our children," the proposal reads. "... Proposed increases are due either to state mandates in addition to enrollment impact or vendor cost increases."
New staffing costs are projected to be $648,860 with the greatest portion going to pay for foreign language teachers in the elementary schools.
As part of the state and federal mandates, the schools are required to provide appropriate programs for all special education students. Special education costs account for 1.5 percent of the total budget, or $1.1 million. In his proposal, Falcone notes that there has been an increase in the number of students who were identified with special needs.
Falcone's proposal says will continue to be funded at a similar level as previous years but there would be more focus on renovations to the old gymnasium at Middlesex Middle School.
"The 2011-2012 Superintendent's Proposed Budget represents the collective efforts of the Board, administration and faculty to provide an educationally sound, yet fiscally responsible, budget for the betterment of Darien's children and the quality of the community," Falcone said in his proposal.