The budget process continued to move forward on Tuesday night. The Board of Education heard feedback from the Board of Finance and members of the RTM regarding Superintendent Dr. Dan Brenner’s proposed budget for 2018-19. Brenner has asked for an increase of 2.75%, which would bring the total budget to $98,511,340.

In a surprise announcement, board Chairman Tara Ochman opened the meeting by explaining the “disappointing” mood of the board. The board learned Tuesday morning that a retirement line in the budget was going to push the proposed increase from 2.75% to 3.01%.

“It is disappointing because I know the administration has reached out since January,” for specifics around the pension number, Ochman said. “This feels like internal politics, and this board will not play politics with kids’ education,” Ochman said, before moving the meeting forward.

The board heard from Board of Finance Chairman Jon Zagrodzky as well as Taylor Carter, vice chairman of the RTM Finance and Budget Committee, and Ann Reed, chairman of the RTM Education Committee. Many other members of both committees were in attendance as well.

Zagrodzky spoke first, and those that followed made many of the same points.

Zagrodzky opened his comments by saying this number was high, but also said, “One of the things I've struggled with is whether to come in and just say here’s a number,” adding, “I’ve come to appreciate the complexities.” Zagrodzky pointed out that a number of parts of the budget were items over which the board has no control, like the surprise pension number, union wages, and other lines.

“The most important thing you can do is highlight what you can actually control as part of this process,” Zagrodzky said, urging the board to make it clear where there were specific decisions about “this is what we will do or not do.”

With the focus on things the board can actually change, Zagrodzky said the Board of Finance would limit its questions to just that.

Zagrodzky was grateful for the personnel data that was included in the budget, saying that personnel growth is “a major driver of long-term expense.” Zagrodzky asked for further data, including reports about FTEs dating back 10 years, saying this information could provide context for past decisions and what is going on in the present.

Turning to the specific personnel items in the budget, namely the proposed assistant athletic director and additional counselor at Middlesex, Zagrodzky said it becomes challenging to justify adding personnel when enrollment projections are flat. “I’m not saying you can’t do it, just that it adds to scrutiny,” Zagrodzky said.

From there, Zagrodzky said he hoped to get a more concrete idea of what the Board of Education is planning to do at Ox Ridge. The school is said to be in need of a major renovation, if not total replacement, and has $3 million in capital projects allotted in the proposed budget.

“We really should limit any capital expense there unless it pertains to staff or student safety until a decision is made,” Zagrodzky said, adding that the recent state of the town addresses made it clear that the town is currently in a position to take on a project the scope of replacing Ox Ridge.

Zagrodzky also asked that the Excess Cost Reimbursement number in the budget be increased to be more consistent with recent rates of reimbursement, which would lower the overall budget. “We prefer to see a number that’s more consistent with reasonable rates from the past,” Zagrodzky said.

Zagrodzky then spoke to the trends within the budget and in recent years that, “make you scratch your head. This year’s budget, without adding in the new pension number, is about $98.5 million dollars, while just eight years ago, the budget was about $70 million. Currently the district has fewer students than it did eight years ago. “We spent $26 million to replace Tokeneke,” Zagrodzky said, adding, “over eight years, we’ve spent the value of a Tokeneke school on education the same number of students.”

The tend examinations continued from there. The cost per student in 2010 was about $14,600, while the proposed budget its $20,630. “If we had been able to limit that to 2.5% growth, we’d be at $17,800 per student.” That $2,800 difference amounts to a difference of $13 million less in budget, which Zagrodzky said, “is a third of the most expensive estimates I’ve seen to replace Ox Ridge.”

If that number is taken out further, in 2022-23, the budget number projects to be about $110 million, and enrollment projections that far out are down from now. Zagrodzky did couple this with the possibility that new affordable housing developments in Darien could bring as many as 200 more students into the district.

“All this in context, explains why I’m of two minds. It’s important to look at this budget now, just this year, and this budget has been very well prepared. But if I look at long term trends, i get concerned,” Zagrodzky closed.

RTM Education Committee Chairman Ann Reed made many of the same points as Zagrodzky. “We feel that 2.75% is too high,” said Reed, who said her committee was looking for specific clarification on some issues. Reed said that the committee got the impression from Middlesex Principal at the Saturday meeting that Middlesex was not necessarily ready for a new counselor. There were also questions about the assistant athletic director, asking about the interactions the current monitors have with the athletic director, if it were possible to simply expand the role of those monitors.

When it came to capital projects, Reed called Ox Ridge “the elephant in the room,” and like Zagrodzky, urged that any capital project at Ox Ridge, other than those related to safety or projects that can be brought forward to a new building, be put off until a firm decision is made. Reed added that the Education Committee was very supportive of Fitch Academy and wants to know more specifically about how success is measured for both students and faculty. The Education Committee is seeking more specifics, while still maintaining student and family privacy, about the costs of outplacements and the savings for the district, along with more specific information about a new location for Fitch Academy. Reed also cautioned that the budget was approaching $100 million, and that, “we want to work collaboratively to manage costs and spend money wisely to keep our schools at their best.”

Taylor Carter, the vice chairman of the Finance of Budget committee, was of a similar mind to the other speakers. Carter said that “no single line item upsets us or sticks out as egregious,” but that the committee feels “a year-over-year increase of 2.75% is too high.” Carter also said that when it comes to the state, “To say the financial situation is bad is an understatement and it’s not getting better,” coupling that with upcoming property reevaluation the recently passed tax bill that could have serious impacts in Darien. Considering those factors, and then pointing out that large projects, like Ox Ridge, are coming, Carter said that fiscal constraint is critical now.

Like other speakers, Carter asked the board to consider raising the Excess Cost Reimbursement number, saying that, “given recent submissions and reimbursement rates we feel it is warranted.” Carter also asked for a final analysis of Fitch Academy and its costs, including transportation, location, and potential revenue. Carter closed by urging the board to look for synergies and in house solutions that could help lower the budget increase number, closing by saying, “2.75% is too high. Finding ways to be more efficient is our best defense against uncertainties the state may bring.”

The board would later go through the budget line by line, recommending to add, reduce, or simply request more information on particular items. Board members did not have to offer specific dollar amounts to cut or add for anything in particular, the process simply illustrates places in the budget that board members would like to see further discussion. Board members suggested a reduction to the clubs and councils budgets and each school in the district. One board member, Dennis Maroney, asked for discussion around the possibility to entirely eliminating all JV and freshman athletics. Maroney was clear that he in no way was advocating for such a cut actually happening, but that the feedback of the night suggested they need to look at creative ways to approach the budget.

There will be a public hearing for the budget on Jan. 30 in the Board of Education meeting room, as the Town Hall auditorium was unavailable.