Students voice concerns about budget cuts
More than a dozen Darienites addressed the Board of Education about a variety of budget cuts at Tuesday night's public hearing regarding the 2010-2011 proposed budget.
It was by far the most crowded meeting so far this budget season; hundreds of cars filled the Town Hall parking lot, creating make-shift parking lots along the side of Renshaw Road and Park Place. It also marked the first time students voiced their concerns.
"As a freshman in high school, I walked into the establishment with a total of zero friends. That's the goose egg," said Darien High School student Terrance Ganser. "And I started off playing football, and went through my year successfully gaining one friend. I didn't really have a social surrounding to really speak of, but at the end of my freshman year, I stumbled on Theatre 308."
Theatre 308 is a performance group in its 30th year at DHS, which stages two productions each academic year.
"Last year we put on `Les Mis' and it was the most fantastic experience of my life. We worked so hard on the production, and to see that taken away breaks my heart," said Ganser, who now serves as the club's vice president.
"I've been given the opportunity to explore my passion," Ganser said. "As a man with three younger sisters, I would love to see that same opportunity be given to them."
Nicole Granath, a junior at DHS, also spoke about the positive experience the variety of clubs and councils at the high school has provided her, receiving a round of applause after claiming her work with the debate team helped her find "the confidence in my speaking abilities to come talk to you tonight."
"So many of our kids are involved in these programs, which really illustrates the fact that students at DHS know how lucky they are," she said.
Granath was also concerned about increased class sizes at the high school. This fall, DHS released a class-size report, which reported there were four classes with 26 students; Granath is in two of these 26-pupil sections.
"Since the time this report was taken, my AP American history class has gained one student, so given that the recommended student capacity in an AP class is 10 to 20 students, we are currently seven students over the maximum recommended limit," she said.
"This has taken a huge toll already, and I can only see it increasing as we make more budget cuts and the class size is projected to increase," Granath said.
Due to the large number of students and time constraints in her English class, comments during discussions are limited to one per student, she said.
"We're pretty bright kids, and everyone wants to express their opinions. In these seminar discussions and in informal discussions ... it's really taken a hit," she said. "Already the class size has taken a toll on the education of the individual student, and if the class sizes increase any more for the next couple years, these detrimental effects will only be magnified, and this is something we absolutely can't allow."
Sophomore Chris Janson told the board he could talk about the various ways proposed budget cuts may affect his education, and the parts of DHS he holds dear, like the school's paper the Neirad, or the swim team. But instead he brought up a few questions and suggestions for the BOE.
"Please explain to me why on a day that it snows in the morning, we have to open a window in my social studies class because it's too hot," he said.
The current budget requests $588,000 for fuel oil, and Janson told the board he thinks that turning down the Thermostat could result in significant savings. Additionally, the Superintendent's Proposed Budget requested about $1 million for electricity, which Janson said could probably be trimmed as well by paying more attention to turning off lights and computers when they're not in use.
These tiny efforts could add up, he said. "It's a very, very easy way to take a little bit of pain out of this process," he told the board.
At the post-public hearing meeting, the board discussed other ways to make small adjustments to the budget to avoid sweeping cuts like those proposed for clubs and councils and interscholastic athletic program.
One proposed solution is to charge students an activity fee to participate in extracurricular programming. At last Tuesday's meeting, the board suggested charging students $75, but this number came up for debate this week.
Board Secretary Clara Sartori said that after seeing how passionate students are about the activities, she would support raising the fee.
Superintendent Donald Fiftal said that he didn't think $75 was a "breaking point" for an activities fee, and he would be willing to raise it to $200, if there was a willingness from families to pay it. If the board raised the fee to $200 per student, it would generate approximately $240,000 in revenue, which would account for about 10 percent of the cuts needed to reach a 3.5 percent budget increase.
"I would want to be careful," he said. "I would want a safety belt of some scholarship money."
The board is expected to approve its budget at its next meeting, Tuesday, Feb. 9 at 7:30 p.m. in the Board of Education meeting room.