Board approves $98M budget amid state cuts
DARIEN — The Darien Board of Education approved a $98 million budget, shifting a proposed $2.1 million loss in state aid over to taxpayers.
“My concern is $2.1 million is not something you can cut internally,” said board chairman Michael Harman at Tuesday’s meeting. “It’s not something I’m willing to gamble with.”
The final budget amount, voted on around midnight, is $98,073,175, a 4.5 percent increase from the 2016-17 budget and a $2.2 million increase from the superintendent’s original proposal. The final budget number could change as it must be approved by other town boards.
The increased budget accounts for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s plan to cut $2.1 in education funding to Darien, but does not factor in his proposal to shift $4.5 million in pension contributions to the town.
The approved operating budget includes $441,000 for new curriculum supervisors, proposed by Superintendent Dan Brenner earlier in the budget season. These new supervisors would be full-time administrators, in charge of coordinating curriculum between five major subjects at the middle and high schools, as well as evaluating teachers based on content knowledge.
After much debate, the board voted to add on a second special education curriculum head in the 11th hour to properly manage the over 500 students with individualized education programs and special accommodations in the two schools. Having two special education leaders will allow one person to serve the middle school and the other person to operate solely at the high school.
The Board of Education also
discussed an alternative high school program, “Fitch Academy.”
During Tuesday’s meeting, a group of Darien High School teachers — part of the committee forming the program — presented on the school, which would aim to serve kids with acute illnesses or severe anxiety, allowing them shorter, less-structured schooldays, as well as the emotional support they need.
The board placed the plan for an alternative high school program in budget control, allowing them to remove it from the budget pending public feedback.
However, Representative Town Meeting member Jay Hardison gave harsh feedback, questioning certain aspects of the program like why students who participate get a Darien High School diploma and how the board expects to serve very ill students.
“I think my role is supporting the taxpayers by making sure we have a great education, but also by making sure we don’t waste money and I wasn’t consoled by this presentation at all,” Hardison said. “You guys ought to put a sign that says ‘Fantasyland’ outside the door.”
Hardison was asked to leave the podium after that comment and board members and people in the audience said they needed time to digest the presentation. Other RTM members asked Hardison not speak on their behalf.
Among other board business, a $10 increase to high school parking fees approved, but the school board turned down a motion proposed by board member Christa McNamara to up the tuition at the Early Learning Program.
The board also decided to save by only adding one full-time guidance counselor at Darien High School. There had previously been discussion about adding two new guidance positions, one for the middle school and one for the high school, but the board felt the high school demonstrated a greater need for an additional counselor.
Furthermore, the board approved a $3.2 million budget for priority-one capital projects, including a $1.6 million plan to expand the Darien High School cafeteria. The cafeteria expansion project was met with support from the community but dissent from the RTM Education Committee. Hardison, a member of that committee, said the RTM looked into adding benches to the cafeteria and suggested the board do the same.
“It’s disappointing we’ve gotten to this point with the cafeteria in the budget, because I feel like with more effort, time and resources, you guys could’ve done this,” Hardison told the board. “It took us a total of 30 minutes to put this together.”
But Hardison’s proposal for benches was met by backlash from parents concerned about the benches’ ability to accommodate students, especially those who are tall or struggle in crowds.
“I have a child who has sensory issues,” said Stacey Tie. “He’s four years old. I want to make sure this cafeteria is ready for him when he goes to high school, so he can enjoy his high school career. I want to make sure he isn’t smashed next to other people, because he doesn’t do well around big crowds.”
Later in the evening, Brenner told the audience they had looked into the benches, but it would require eliminating the tiers of the current cafeteria which would be costly.