Finance officials heard Darien School parents rally in favor of the Board of Education spending plan at Town Hall as they begin vetting the 2015-2016 spending plan for schools and town.

"When I think about what makes this town of Darien such a desirable and competitive place, I put the school system and high school right at the top of that list," said Robin Hayes, a father of two at Darien High School.

More than two dozen parents urged support for the Board of Education's proposed $90.97 million budget for next year. Many emphasized the need to pursue particular projects now, while also finding a balance between keeping taxes low and setting and pursuing longer term plans to invest in buildings and educational programs to improve the district.

A soon-to-be finished facilities and enrollment study is just the first step to set capital priorities to prevent overcrowding and identifying necessary investments to maintain technology and other curriculum on par with other districts, according to Shelly Skoglund, a parent of a seventh-grader at Middlesex Middle School and a fifth-grader at Royle School.

"As a town, we've taken great pride in our ability to maintain a lower mill rate than many of our peer towns," Skoglund said. "While a portion of that success is due to good management by our town leaders, including this board, a significant component has come from the deferral of capital investments in our schools."

A long-range capital plan outlining the anticipated need to replace or upgrade buildings is a serious lack, said Tara Worm, co-chairwoman of the Parent Teacher's Organization at Royle School.

Worm said injections of private funds to rebuild athletic fields and other facilities is wonderful, but it also holds less sway over what happens because of the lack of an overall plan. In addition, the lack of a plan also lessens any opportunity to drive private fundraising efforts to fund the most pressing projects.

"The Darien Athletic Association has proposed the donation of five turf fields and a cross country track with a total value in excess of $5 million," Worm said. "However, we are sliding down a slippery slope. The district should strategize and establish the order of priorities and what capital needs need to be met."

The overall education budget is $2.83 million higher than last year, a 3.22 percent increase, reflecting in large part increased costs as a result of a new teacher's contract, increasing enrollment, and fixed costs, Board of Education chairwoman Elizabeth Hagerty Ross said.

"Each dollar requested by the building principals was justified with a detailed explanation of their requests," Hagerty Ross said. "Our operating expenses increases have leveled out at just under 1 percent."

The capital budget for schools prioritizes projects such as the $525,000 needed to install turf on athletic fields and $230,632 to build a band shell at Darien High School. At Middlesex Elementary School, the budget allocates $240,000 to convert oil burners into dual fuel units and $160,000 at Royle Elementary School for new masonry and and resurfacing parking lots.

Improving the auditorium should be a major priority for the town, a task that was left incomplete when the remodeled $76 million high school was opened in 2005, Laurie Orem, a budget representative and member of the Council of Darien School parents said.

"It lacks proper acoustics and lighting and it remains an unfinished space with a white cloth for a backdrop," Orem said. "It is time to transform it into the attractive, versatile, and acoustical performance space that was intended."

The Board of Selectmen also presented its budget, which limited the operating budget increase to 0.77 percent and 0.94 percent total budget increase including debt service and capital requests of 0.94 percent, First Selectman Jayme Stevenson said.

The lower than normal tax increase is a result of a nearly nine-month process of reviewing the town's spending patterns beginning last May, after the town's Representative Town Meeting asked the officials to keep spending to a minimum after a 5.8 percent tax increase in 2014-2015.

Departments were asked to turn in initial requests limited to 1 percent increase or less, Stevenson said.

"Most departments were really able to keep their budgets within that threshold amount without gutting services," Stevenson said. "I'm very pleased at the operating increase limitation we are passing on to you this evening, and we hope that you agree."

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