Finance board budget hearing brings support from community

After being delayed a week by a snowstorm, the Board of Finance held their public hearing regarding the budget on Tuesday evening. Dozens of community members came to the Town Hall auditorium to voice concerns a number of budgetary issues. The town Board of Education and members of the administration, including Superintendent Dr. Dan Brenner, and Darien First Selectman Jayme Stevenson were in attendance as well, along with many members of the RTM. Board of Finance Chairman Jon Zagrodzky opened the proceedings by welcoming the audience and thanking them for their testimony, saying, “we are glad to be here and glad to hear from all of you.”

Virtually all of the the speakers for the evening focused on the submitted Board of Education budget. Within that budget, certain topics came up more than others, specifically the cafeteria expansion, department chairs, additional guidance counselors, and the cloud of funding cuts from Hartford.

Shelly Skoglund was the first speaker of the evening, and was joined by Julia Mengwall. Skoglund pointed out that, without the impact of cuts from Hartford, the proposed Board of Education budget is “actually only a 2.1% increase,” for which Brenner and the board should be applauded. Skoglund went to support the need for the new department chairperson positions, saying,

“For years we’ve been asking the district to improve consistency and smooth transitions,” which is a goal of the new positions, particularly in the special education department.

Mengwall spoke about the need to additional guidance counselors, which the proposed budget provides.

“There has been a dramatic increase in demand the last few years on the guidance department in secondary schools,” Mengwall said, and asked the board to support the additional counselor proposed. Further, Mengwall offered support for Fitch Academy, the alternative high school program in the budget.

“We are encouraged that the district has responded with a plan to educate these children in district,” Skoglund said, clearly pleased with the attempt to address the number of outplaced students from Darien.

Mengwall also addressed the cafe expansion, calling it an “undisputed need.” Further, Mengwall reminded the board and those present that, “we are in the current situation based on short sightedness in the past,” and urged that the prudent decision be made with an emphasis on spending a little more now in order to solve a much larger problem in the future.

A number of Darien High School students attended the hearing to speak about the cafe expansion as well, including graduating junior Ari Singer-Freeman.

“A whole group of students chooses every single day to eat in the F wing and not the cafe,” said Singer-Freeman, adding that he personally has had to stand for lunch multiple times.

Senior Izzy Howe, freshman Catherine Vogt, and senior Katya Gunya all spoke about the need for expansion as well, pointing to instances where they have had to share seats or eat in a staircase away from the cafeteria.

SEPAC parents Tricia Bresnahan, Courtney Darby, Alex Hall, Wendy Hopper, and Margarita Zimmerman have been mainstays at hearings and meetings throughout the budget process, and were present at the Tuesday’s hearing.

They pushed hard to continue the support of professional development, citing a need to invest in training and best practices in the district. They also voiced support for the cafeteria expansion, additional guidance counselor at DHS, technology rollout, additional school psychologist, and two special education department chairs.

Wendy Ward was one of a number of speakers who addressed the effects that cutting the budget could have on property values in town. Ward called the schools, “a pillar of our community,” and said that cutting their funding amounts to, “a change in our core values.”

Later in the evening Mark Beaven made a similar point. “Above every factor in the decision to move here was public education,”

Beaven said before pointing to 20 years of investments in initiatives to keep schools performing as well as they do.

“Residents have experienced a massive increase in town home values,” said Beaven, adding, “If you have enjoyed the increase in home value, you need to support the school funding.”

One of the last speakers of the night, Curtis Butler, an RTM member, also spoke about how paramount the need to continue funding schools has become.

“It would be very tempting to assume that the accolades and rankings that the schools currently enjoy will sustain if we do nothing,” said Butler, adding, “We cannot assume that will maintain. We have to continue to invest in programs and invest in facilities.”

Ed Banks, a parent of daughters who have come through the district schools but will soon be an empty nester. Banks pointed out that he was late to the hearing because he had been commuting home from New Jersey.

“I do that commuting every day.We’ve looked at schools in New Jersey and have elected to stay here,” Banks said. “As I become an empty nester, I count on preserving the property values. Even if I didn’t have children in school, I would say I’m willing to pay more if that’s what it takes,” Banks added.

Other speakers of the evening had anecdotes about moving from other places to Darien specifically for the schools. Julie Best moved from NYC seven years ago. Courtney Pare moved from NYC in 2015. Liz Riva was another parent who moved to Darien from New York seven years ago. Millyn Gaaserud came to Darien from North Carolina six years ago. Each of these speakers specifically mentioned the high quality of public education as the reason they chose Darien, and offered support for the board of ed budget as submitted.

There was not a single speaker who voiced opposition to any particular piece of the Board of Education budget as proposed. Each speaker of the night was met with rounds of applause, as they pushed hard to support the budget that they would keep keep their children in excellent schools and protect the values of their homes.

The Board of Finance is expected to vote on the budget in early April. The final hurdle for the budget is the Representative Town Meeting in mid-May. The RTM can remove line items from the town budget but can only reduce the Board of Education budget by amount.