Schools face unexpected $250,000 budget increase, brings total to $98.5M
DARIEN — The Board of Education is looking at an unexpected $250,000 increase to their budget after finding out they have to pay for additional retirement costs.
“We start tonight in a very different mood than we normally do. We are both frustrated and disappointed,” Chairman Tara Ochman said at Tuesday night’s school board meeting.. “It’s disappointing because I know all of you have worked very hard to come here tonight in earnest, to look at a budget that’s tight without impacting children. It is new information.”
According to Ochman, this causes the board’s budget request to go up to $98,511,340, a 3.01 percent over the current year’s budget. Before the inclusion of the additional retirement costs, the school board had anticipated an increase of 2.75 percent. Ochman said the district had tried to get the line-item for retirement costs earlier to include it in the budget discussions.
“It is further disappointing because I knew the administration reached out in January and was met with answers like ‘We didn’t have time to get that information,’” Ochman said. “Let me be clear: this feels like internal politics. This board will not play politics with children’s educations.”
Superintendent Dan Brenner said the district received this number from the town the afternoon prior to the meeting.
“As we sit and meet weekly to discuss the budget, we find ourselves feeling like it could be interpreted as we did a bait-and-switch,” he said. “That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Board of Finance Chairman Jon Zagrodzky attributed the number to a new actuary the town is using.
“It’s true we’re just finding out about this today,” Zagrodzky said, speaking at the school board meeting on behalf of the town’s finance board. “I’m not sure I’d read into this as politics.”
Zagrozky added all town boards struggle with communication and urged the board to put this aside their feelings to move forward with the budget process.
Before the inclusion of the additional retirement costs, the school board had anticipated an increase of 2.75 percent.
According to Zagrodzky, the finance board feels the school board’s ask is too high, regardless of the recent addition. He pointed out trends in the budget since he joined town government in 2010, noting the school budget has increased by $27.6 million in that time though the district has only increased by 66 students. The district’s per pupil cost has also grown from around $14,000 to around $20,000, far beyond other districts in the area.
To put the $27.6 million increase in less than a decade into perspective, Zagrodzky compared it to the cost of building Tokeneke School.
“I get there is inflation and cost increases,” he said. “But we spent $26 or $27 million on Tokeneke School. We’re spending every year the equivalent of Tokeneke.”
Zagrodzky acknowledged some of these costs are fixed but urged the board to communicate better which costs they can control.
“If I look at long-term trends and I look at implications for taxpayers, I get concerned,” he said.
While Zagrodzky did say he didn’t have any solutions, he, as well as representatives from the Representative Town Meeting Education and Budget Committees had one suggestion: address what is happening with Ox Ridge School. The idea to rebuild the school has been thrown around in the past and now other town committees are urging the board to knock down some of the $3 million in capital projects for the 50-year-old school until they decide what to do with it.
“We are getting to the point where if you decide to do something, we’re going to go ahead and execute,” Zagrodzky said. “It is time to start to seriously consider that.”