Darien schools' $116 million proposed budget focuses on staff shortages, security and mental health

DARIEN — After a year plagued by staff shortages and concern for student wellbeing, Darien Public Schools’ proposed $116 million budget is putting the focus on school personnel.

Superintendent Alan Addley revealed the proposed budget for the 2024 fiscal year during a Thursday night Board of Education meeting.

Addley says the spending plan, a 4.94 percent increase from last year, is designed to foster a “health and safety learning community,” taking into account increased safety and security, mental health resources, supporting special education programs and addressing staff shortages.

The majority of the proposed budget, 62 percent, is dedicated to personnel. Addley said the increase was not surprising for a “people-oriented business,” which will include salary increases for teachers under a new contract and the addition of new growth positions including a Director of Mental Health, Director of Security and six school security officers.

After more than 70 teachers left Darien in a single year, the district signed a three-year contract with the teachers’ union that granted teachers the highest salary raises in over a decade, a settlement worth more than $6 million.

As part of the new budget proposal, substitute teachers will also earn a higher wage, bumping up both building substitutes and daily substitutes by $25 per day — earning $150 and $125 per day respectively. 

The superintendent’s proposed budget would also expand the number of building substitutes — substitute teachers assigned to a specific building for the school year — to three per school working five days a week. The district currently employs two per building working four days a week.

Addley said addressing the substitute teacher shortages, a nationwide problem, was one of the key goals of the new spending plan.

“At $100, for a daily sub, that’s barely above minimum wage,” Addley said. “It’s a competitive business at this particular point, so we’re looking to see if we can actually address that, get better qualified, more reliable substitute teachers in front of our young people.”

Given shortages in special education staff, the district plans to hire 11 special education staff members and expand special education programs by $574,000, though the actual cost will be about $100,000 after state reimbursement.

The district will have an overall net increase of nine additional full-time staff members through a mix of full and part-time employees to address increased enrollment at the elementary level and reducing class sizes in the high school particularly for physical education, science and health.

Mental health is a significant focus in the town as Darien moves forward after the tragic loss of three high school students last spring.

On top of the mental health director, the proposed budget includes a wellness coordinator to take on the primary role of creating programming for the high school’s recently opened Wellness Center. With the coordinator, the center’s hours will be expanded.

The district also plans to implement TeenTalk, a program from Greenwich-based Kids in Crisis that places an independent counselor specially trained to identify at-risk students in the school.

Board member Tara Wurm said she was glad to see TeenTalk included in the school’s proposed spending plan, adding that she had hoped to see a larger presentation for the Board of Education for the past year.

“In (the budget), you talk about that they work collaboratively, when from what I know of the program, the point of it is that they are independent so that the students feel comfortable,” she said. “I’m curious about that and hoping that we see more detail on it.”

Addley said that an additional presentation on TeenTalk and the school’s mental health strategy will be held.

Because of budget constraints, the district will not welcome its usual two teachers-in-residence, though Addley said this did not mean the program is eliminated. The gifted program at the high school will also be downsized for the year because of enrollment, though, again, Addley stressed that the downsize was not a permanent change.

While the proposed budget looks high, Addley estimated that the district spends 99.7 percent of the money the schools are allocated.

“We don’t build in any fluff,” Addley said, adding that the 99.7 percent figure "+++in a given year is actually what we would spend. In a $100 million budget, that’s a good accomplishment.”