Reminiscent of a year ago, no one spoke for or against the town administrator's 2014-15 proposed budget at a public hearing Monday, but opinions were bountiful on the school superintendent's request Tuesday.
The proposed municipal budget of $133,472,432 carries a 6.19 percent increase over 2013-14. Interim Superintendent of Schools Lynne Pierson proposed an $87,652,090 budget, a 5.32 percent increase.
Following changes from Director of Finance Mike Feeney, the 2014-15 budget is now $88,255,164, or a 6.04 percent increase over the 2013-14 school budget.
"The past year has been challenging for all of us who are connected to the school community," Robin Nelson, co-chairman of the Council of Darien School Parents, said at the Board of Education public hearing. "The proposed budget allows us to begin to move forward and to run our schools, while we afford ourselves the opportunity to plan for the future."
Nick DeMarco, an 18-year resident of Darien, said he recognizes the difficulty the board and parents have faced in the past year in terms of the special education complaint and recent resignations, but asked that they also consider the burdens the increased spending place on all taxpayers.
Tara Ochman, co-chairman of the CDSP, and Nelson are concerned about the lack of space in the schools as the enrollment increases.
Since 2004, Darien's enrollment has increased 12.4 percent, while the average of the other District Reference Group A schools -- school districts that are socioeconomically similar to Darien -- is 0.9 percent, according to enrollment data from other schools in DRG A.
"Increasing enrollment is not a `bubble' -- it is our new reality," Nelson said.
She added that schools that were once considered large enough to house the students are now at capacity.
In 2013, the Board of Education considered two building projects that would add additional classroom space at Royle and Tokeneke elementary schools, but they were put on hold after the estimated cost came in much higher than anticipated.
Darien residents under the age of 18 make up 36.8 percent of the overall population in 2010, an increase from 32.5 percent in 2000, according to census data. Darien has the highest percentage of people under the age of 18 than any other town in Connecticut.
"Over half of the town's families are sending children to school each day," Ochman said.
Though 15 portable classrooms were implemented at the elementary schools as a temporary solution, Ochman said, they have become "long-term fixes" as they have been in place for more than 10 years.
What's more, Ochman said, is that the 2014-15 budget projections show that many elementary school classrooms will be over capacity.
"As a result, our common spaces are at maximum and sometimes over maximum capacity," said Sarah Neumann, Hindley Elementary School budget representative and Middlesex Middle School PTO co-chairman. "This is most pressing at Hindley, where they need to simultaneously conduct physical education classes in the cafeteria and the gymnasium to accommodate the student population."
According to Julia Ford, co-chairman of the Middlesex Middle School PTO, capacity issues also exist at the middle school.
"The middle school was at peak capacity in 2009-10, with 13.25 teams and 1,156 students," Ford said. "Although our enrollment is projected to decrease next year, we are projected to have 1,189 students by 2017-18, which would exceed our current building capacity."
"Strong leadership and strategic vision are the keys to success," said Tania Secor, a budget representative from Holmes Elementary School. "A vision can only be implemented with a strong district leadership team that has the educational and management experience, as well as the depth and strength of character to guide a high-performing school district."
Following the resignation of Superintendent Stephen Falcone and the hiring of Pierson, the district announced that it would host focus groups for members of the community to seek input regarding the qualities they wish to see in their schools chief.
Representatives from CDSP also support the necessary funding for professional development for the teachers in the district.
"It is important for them to learn from each other and also to be infused with new ideas and knowledge from experts in their areas of specialization," said Laurie Orem, a Darien High School budget representative. "We need to encourage our teachers to avail themselves of these opportunities as well."
Additionally, Pierson proposed the hiring of a full-time director of human resources in the district.
"This professional will take on the important responsibility of actively recruiting top-notch professional staff, drive job-performance management and professional development, and assist in ensuring that a culture of excellence thrives in our district," Ochman said. "Just like any successful organization, we need the right people in the right jobs working collaboratively with fellow administrators, parents and students to achieve the excellence that we expect from our schools."
Darien Public Schools is entering the last year of its three-year technology plan and has budgeted $413,000 for technology upgrades in 2014-15. The middle school will see mobile cart upgrades and the implementation of Chromebooks in the classrooms.
"Longer term, we need a strategic technology plan in place that is not just a reaction to testing requirements or immediate classroom needs, but rather providing a clear plan for our schools with world-class technology solutions and instruction," Neumann said. "We need to plan in terms of not just the equipment requirements, but also the personnel to deploy, maintain and train and support staff."
The new testing model, Smarter Balanced, which will be used alongside the new Common Core State Standards teaching model, requires that the test be taken online.
Plans already are in motion to determine what will be needed for the 2015-18 technology plan.
"We have budgeted for the hardware and the software," Orem said. "We have technical staff to help with the selection and operation of that hardware and to troubleshoot when there are glitches. But how do we ensure that the technology is being integrated in creative and complementary ways by our teachers and students in the classroom?"
The special education budget is set to increase by 12.8 percent to a proposed $19.5 million in 2014-15 from $17.3 million.
"As parents, we ask the board to support solutions and procedures that will solve our short-term problems and pledge to sustain us through the medium and long term," said Anne Foster, the CDSP special education budget representative.
Additional funds were added to the special education budget to account for curriculum supervision stipends, salaries for the seven proposed special education facilitators, a part-time speech therapist, and money for professional development.
Anne Foster and Jill McCammon, who spoke on behalf of the parents with special-needs children, told the board that they believed the salary of the facilitators should be similar to that of a curriculum coordinator.
Questions were raised on the board level about whether or not they would be able to attract the right caliber of professional for the facilitators with a lower salary. As a result, Feeney told the board on Tuesday night that base salary for the facilitator position was adjusted to $86,088, from just under $60,000.
Town Administrator Karl Kilduff proposes a town operating budget of $45,217,268, a nearly 6.5 percent increase, for 2014-15.
The proposed budget carries an increase of $2.75 million from the 2013-14 budget of $42,466,624.
Kilduff cut $2.9 million from the budget before presenting it to the selectmen.
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