In recent years, education spending has been a flash point between Darien's Board of Finance and its Board of Education, with debate especially focused on overruns in special education costs. This year, things are a little different.

On Tuesday night, the town's Board of Finance drove across town to offer measured approval to the Board of Education for keeping its initial spending increase request below four percent, but also asked education officials to seek out additional savings wherever possible. The $91.3 million budget for Darien schools represents a 3.6 percent increase over last year, much of it comprised of the cost of a two-year pact between teachers and the district that ensures planned wage increases.

After addressing the Board of Education, Board of Finance chairman Elizabeth Mao said she thought the budget would be easier to manage this year, even with the wage increases.

"In light of all we've seen in recent years with legal problems and special ed problems, we see this as being a much more normal environment, even with the fact we have a teachers' contract and other costs," Mao said.

After Mao asked members of the education board to ferret out any extraneous costs, Ed Board Chairwoman Elizabeth Hagerty Ross said education officials were heeding the finance board's desire to take a harder look at the budget.

"We're in the middle of scrubbing it and want to take advantage of cutting anything we can to the benefit of our taxpayer, but still provide the education residents expect," Hagerty Ross said.

In a meeting preceding the Board of Education discussion, members of the finance board agreed unanimously that they supported the two-year teacher's contract, which includes $1.8 million in wage increases. The total increase in the budget is $3.22 million.

Other increases include $741,000 for operating costs and $617,000 for fixed costs, according to the budget.

Cumulatively, Darien teachers will receive step increases of 3.27 percent in the first year and 3.13 percent in the second year of the contract, said Frank Hull, a board of finance member who, along with Mao, served on a committee that negotiated the contract.

Under the pact, two groups of senior teachers who are no longer eligible for contractually stipulated increases will receive small increases of 1.2 percent and .52 percent.

The step increases, in part, also will help serve as a recruiting tool for school administrators, who, Mao said, told her that the increases are needed to keep the district more competitive for teaching talent.

The budget also includes $2.6 million in capital spending, which includes $525,000 to replace turf on Darien High School's playing field, and $350,000 for Middlesex Elementary School for projects including converting oil burners to dual fuel.

The budget plan also calls for 14 new employees, including elementary reading specialists, early learning para-professionals, to be offset by cutting six full-time positions at the elementary level.

James McLaughlin, a finance board member, also addressed the board of education to stress the financial imperative that the district expedite some analysis of its longer-term capital planning needs based on an ongoing facilities study being done by consultant Milone & McBroom.

If the district needs to expand capacity at some schools or address other infrastructure needs, such as generators, McLaughlin said from a financial standpoint the time to borrow is now rather than later, while interest rates remain modest.

"In this capital market's current interest-rate environment that we've been enjoying, there is a window that will close," McLaughlin said.