COVID-19 has cost Darien schools $1M more than expected
DARIEN — Darien schools administration have estimated that reopening amid COVID-19 has cost the district an additional $1 million.
The impact and possible need for further funding was discussed at a Tuesday finance board meeting with Board of Education Chairman Tara Ochman, Schools Superintendent Alan Addley, and First Selectman Jayme Stevenson.
The costs were due to additional support staff, cleaning and technology needs, according to Addley.
The update follows a discussion in May during which the Board of Finance asked the BOE to reduce its requested budget increase. During that meeting, BOF Chairman Jon Zagrodzky told Addley and the BOE that, should the schools need more funding due to COVID-19 reopening and associated safety and learning measures, they could return with a request for an appropriation.
Zagrodzky said the reason for Tuesday’s meeting was not to make any requests yet but so that the dialogue could continue between the school and finance boards and there would be “no surprises.”
“This is just one discussion a long line of discussions,” he said.
Addley said that in late August or early September, the original $1.8 million in COVID-19 expenses were offset by a grant of approximately $500,000, leaving a $1.3 million total. Thirty faculty members decided not to return this school year.
Since that initial figure, another $1 million in expenses had been accrued, according to Addley, related in part to the transition from hybrid into full in-person learning on Sept. 29. The current estimated COVID-19 costs are approximately $2.8 million.
The schools need to keep desks 3 feet apart in classrooms and students eat lunch 6 feet apart. This requires more staff to monitor the extra spaces, which includes the gyms and other repurposed areas.
Other expenses include cleaning supplies and extra hours for custodians to clean over the weekend. Addley said technology and tech staff had to be increased due to the hybrid program and remote learners, especially if the schools ever needed to go full remote again.
Addley said there’s a possibility of more COVID-19 grants coming to offset costs as well.
Finance director Richard Rudl said the district had separated out all COVID expenses into one expense center in order to both track the costs and keep them separate from the average year’s budget items.
“This is exactly the kind of discussion I wanted to have,” Zagrodzky said. “It’s very clear you had to make tough operational decisions to get this done and it was a difficult process.”
Despite some increased costs, Stevenson said the town would not be seeking an appropriation from the finance board and instead would be covering those via internal balance transfers and other adjustments.
She added that FEMA and the Cares Act have provided grants, and the Secretary of the State has provided additional funding for a safe election process to help offset additional staffing costs.
“We were pretty efficient with the costs that it has taken to continue Town Hall services,” Stevenson said, pointing out that Town Hall recently reopened to in-person business. We never missed a beat there. I’m very proud of that.”
One area that did incur costs was legal counsel, as Stevenson said the town administration had to work through “two alphabets’ worth of executive orders” from the governor.
The town hired also security to patrol the town’s beaches and parks over the summer, and they interacted with residents, making sure they were social distancing and wearing masks as needed.
COVID-19 has also resulted in lost revenue for the town, Stevenson said, with the cancellations of some Parks & Recreation programming and the closure of the senior center. Further revenue was lost due to commuters not parking at train stations. Stevenson estimated that 90 percent of the parking fees were lost.
In terms of what the town had learned from the last few months, Stevenson said there was nothing more beneficial to the emergency response process then actually going through it.
“Storms, a presidential election, racial tensions, protests and the pandemic — it’s not easy. And it’s not easy for the Board of Ed and for teachers as well. I think everyone needs a mental health break once in a while. But we endeavor to persevere,” she said.
Zagrodzky said it was “really impressive” how the boards are working to resolve the issue faced by the pandemic.
“Not just the executive staff here today, but teachers, students, staff — every person pulling their weight collectively. You can see the results. Town Hall is open. Schools are open when most are not,” he said.
Zagrodzky said while it is going to cost some money, it is “not anywhere near what I expected.”
The next steps will be for the BOE to vet a future appropriation request and bring it to finance board later in the year. Any appropriations request would need to be approved by the Representative Town Meeting.