To an outsider looking in on Darien's 2013-14 budget-setting process, it would appear that taxpayers have no qualms with town-side expenses, simply because no one has publicly spoken for or against it.
During the Board of Finance public hearing about the budget on Tuesday, March 12, seven people spoke in favor of the proposed $83,224,929 Board of Education budget, which is a 4.05 percent increase over 2012-13, and asked the finance members to support it. The proposed 2013-14 selectmen's budget is $42,660,699, which Is a 5.99 percent increase over 2012-13.
"As taxpayers and parents, we ask you to support the Board of Education's approved operating and capital budgets because they will allow our elementary schools to meet the most basic needs of Darien's children," said Robin Nelson, a Tokeneke Elementary School Council of Darien School Parents budget representative.
One of those basic needs to which Nelson referred is the aging furniture at the schools and displayed two chairs with cracks in them as examples. She said a student had been sitting in one of the chairs last winter when it cracked.
Board of Finance Chairman Liz Mao asked if those cracked chairs still were being used by the students or if they had been replaced. Additionally, she said, it wasn't the Board of Finance that was not allowing the students to sit in new chairs, but that parents should look to the Board of Education instead.
"The Board of Finance has never had chairs and desks and cafeteria tables come before it," Mao said. "If this is in the operating budget, the people who controlled it were the Board of Education, not the Board of Finance."
Nelson also addressed the Board of Education's desire to purchase generators for at least two of the elementary schools. Generators were an item of question when the Board of Education submitted its budget to the Board of Finance. Members of the Board of Finance wondered why permanent generators needed to be purchased instead of using temporary generators when needed.
"I'm very interested in the generator story, but I'm still not sure why we can't have portable generators," Mao said.
Nelson spoke to the necessity of a generator at Ox Ridge Elementary School because of its sewage system at the school. Ox Ridge has a sewage ejection system, which uses electricity to pump sewage up to the lines on Mansfield Avenue.
A power outage of more than two hours could lead to major problems, such as was the case during a lightning storm last summer.
"Without a working sewer ejection system, sewage came back into the school, spilling over into classrooms, onto rugs and down hallways," Nelson said.
To combat the sewage backup, the tanks were pumped every 90 minutes for two weeks until repairs were done to the system, Nelson said.
"The failure of the sewer ejection system creates a health and safety issue for the children, and they would not be able to remain on campus," she said.
A majority of the speakers spoke in favor of the proposed school security changes, which include a campus monitor, such as the one at Darien High School.
At the last Board of Finance meetings, members wondered why this sort of position needed to be funded when volunteer parents normally man the doors to ensure that visitors are logged in and accounted for.
The Board of Finance recently approved $75,000 for campus monitors for the remainder of the year
The problem with using volunteers, Nelson said, is that they are not required to be there.
"While we appreciate and commend the multitude of volunteers in the Darien elementary school system for our Welcome Desk program, we should not be relying on volunteers for ensuring school security," Nelson said, adding that volunteers can cancel their volunteer shift to take care of personal matters.
The Board of Education explained to the Board of Finance at the last meeting that the campus monitor is intended to become a figure in the school that becomes ingrained in the daily happenings, allowing that person to address needs and issues as they arise.
"And, most importantly, this individual will have the authority and experience to effectively identify and address situations that may present a security risk," Nelson said.
An unhappy board
After all was said and done, Mao turned to the audience and expressed her frustration with some of the speeches.
"I get a little upset when I hear, `Well, we haven't been funding things at the schools,' " Mao said, adding that the Board of Finance has funded major construction projects at Middlesex Middle School and Hindley Elementary School.
"We want the painting to be done," Mao said. "There shouldn't be water-logged carpets, there just shouldn't be. And I'll reiterate what I said, this is not the Board of Finance cracking down on these things. That's your Board of Education."
Mao expressed interest in having discussions with the school board -- as has been done in the past -- about small capital projects.
"Instead of expensing (the projects) to the operating budget, we put them in a small capital budget," Mao said. "It makes it easier to find out what the reserves are and then we're not taxing the taxpayers for what's really not an operating cost."