Support was strong for the proposed 2014-15 town and school budgets at the Board of Finance public hearing Tuesday, despite some town officials' repeated disapproval over the increases.
"We can choose to shy away from the uncertainty of our future or we can have the courage to engage with the process of rebuilding," said Julia Ford, the representative for Council of Darien School Parents Middlesex Middle School. "Everyone involved -- parents, taxpayers, Board of Education, Board of Finance -- can recommit by supporting the Board of Education proposed budget."
The Board of Education's proposed $88,135,967 budget is a 5.9 percent increase over 2013-14. The Board of Selectmen's proposed 2014-15 budget is $44,685,190. The total proposed municipal 2014-15 budget is $132,794,157, which represents a 5.65 percent increase of $7,102,604 over the 2013-14 budget.
"Most might argue that our district is vulnerable right now because we are in the midst of a special-education reorganization," Ford said. "We need to hire a new superintendent, we need to pass a budget for next year that has significant associated costs."
Throughout the course of the deliberations over the education and town budgets, most residents have been vocal in support of the package for the schools.
While he said he is a proponent of public education, resident Nick DeMarco asked that the Board of Finance put forward no tax increases for the next fiscal year and said he felt the budget conversations are being led by a vocal minority.
DeMarco said he understands that all boards have a difficult job, but that he wanted to "plead the case of the taxpayer that must bear the burden of your decisions."
Others who followed DeMarco didn't share his sentiment.
"I know that there are many in Darien who are not millionaire investment bankers, those living on fixed incomes, facing rising costs," said Jim Cameron, a member of the Representative Town Meeting. "But we have tax-abatement plans to help them, and I hope they take advantage of those offers and stay in our town. But they are not the majority. The majority in this town are parents of school-aged kids. Education is our major industry, but schools alone are not what this budget addresses."
Cameron, who also is the director of TV79, said there are people who cannot afford to stay in town if it continues to run on a "bare-bones" budget. He cited the lack of parking in the lots, forcing commuters to be placed on a 10-year wait list for a pass, or those who live in parts of town where emergency-services communication is weak.
"The quality of life and the quality of schools that attracted us to this town are eroding because of misplaced priorities," Cameron said. "I, for one, say raise my taxes. Please invest in our town and its future. Give the police department the gear it needs to keep us all safe. Invest in new fire department equipment, snow plows and roadways. Clean our beaches, build new sidewalks. And, yes, please raise my taxes."
Tara Ochman, co-chairwoman of the CDSP, addressed the cost-per-pupil spending and how Darien compares to towns that are socio-economically similar. In its District Reference Group, DRG A, Darien spends an average of $16,719 per pupil compared to $17,501 for other towns.
"But it seems that at some point, we, as a community, allowed the scales to tip, thinking that efficiency could replace best practices," Ochman said. "Using special education as an example, financial pressure and mistakes in leadership and management allowed us to be willing to believe that we could do more for less with no adverse effects. We were wrong. This is something that we, as an entire community, must accept and be willing to rectify because the necessary remediation is not in any one educational area; it spans the system."
Parent Debbie Ice agreed.
"While one of the wealthiest towns, we spend almost the least on students in DRG A," Ice said. "Let's face it: We're cheap."
After the Board of Education presented its budget to the Board of Finance, discussions immediately began about whether the town could afford to hire new special-education facilitators. The Board of Education recommends paying each facilitator $86,088, which would cost the district $568,181 in salaries.
"Rather than focus on head count, consider what is inside the head and the hearts of those you are counting," Vicki Riccardo said.
During discussions between the boards of finance and education on March 4, Board of Finance Chairman Liz Mao asked if the school board should wait to hire the new facilitators until a new superintendent was hired and implemented. Board of Education Chairman Betsy Hagerty-Ross told Mao that the board did not want to wait and the hiring of the facilitators would be done at the recommendation of several experts with which the district has consulted.
"While we understand the suggestion made by the Board of Finance about having a new superintendent in place prior to adding new special-education positions, we trust the advice of the special-education experts we've hired," said Mike Moore, a CDSP representative who spoke on behalf of the elementary schools budget. "Now that this team has identified solutions, we believe that these recommendations should be followed so that we are ready when schools open in the fall."
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