The 2011-2012 Budget process is well underway. The Board of Education, as always, has spent more than a month reviewing the budget proposed by the administration, line by line. There have been four or more public meetings at which the superintendent and department heads have presented their specific requests and answered questions posed by the Board and the audience.

The Board of Finance has addressed the group as have RTM committees. The public hearing took place Thursday, Feb. 3.

While time-consuming and sometimes tedious, this is a valuable process. The Board of Ed works hard to maintain educational excellence in our schools and request only the funding necessary to meet the district objectives. The administration takes feedback from the Board, reviews its requirements and negotiates with service providers (health, heating oil, transportation) to secure the best pricing scenario. The initial budget request has been reduced by the administration to 6.9 percent. The Board of Ed will continue to gather information and deliberate until its vote, scheduled for Feb. 8. More reductions will surely be made.

Concern has been expressed about the year-to-year increase. While these numbers are being carefully reviewed, the realities behind the numbers require deeper analysis of the drivers, the data and the history. While the details are too great for this piece, several points a worth mentioning:

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For the past several years the Board of Education has combed the budget for cost savings, deferred spending on items from textbooks, to technology to capital repairs. They have increased fees to students and have reduced administrative staff.

While the year to year budget is up, in many instances spending is flat or decreasing over time. For example, using the initial budget proposal, operating expenses for the district since 2007-08 have increased 27 percent. Over that same period operating expenses excluding special education have increased only 5.8 percent. At DHS, operating expenses are up 1.2 percent during a time of 18.9 percent enrollment growth and operating expenses have actually decreased by 4.5 percent at Middlesex Middle School. There is reason for concern when funds for items used directly in our classrooms and libraries (textbooks, instructional materials and teaching supplies) are declining.

We look at our education spending in total, as we should, because we are educating all of the children of Darien. But, during this five-year period total actual spending has increased 25 percent, special ed spending and fixed costs have increased 45 percent and 40 percent respectively with remaining spending up only 15 percent in five years. The 15 percent growth (excluding special ed and fixed cost) suggest a strong effort by the Board and administration to curtail spending they directly control the best they can during a period of growing enrollment, increased costs and economic pressures.

Darien has willingly and historically provided an excellent education to its children. This drives the demand to live here and the value of our community. Expenditures in the classroom are an investment in our children, our town and our future. There are negative consequences if we reduce our investments to levels that reduce current services and limit the district's ability to move ahead with new ideas or initiatives over time. I am confident that the Board of Education will submit a budget to the Town of Darien which supports the district's goals and is justifiable financially.

Kathleen J. Finnegan is the budget chairman of the Council of Darien School Parents.