The Darien Board of Education received mixed feedback over the schools budget on Tuesday — parents, teachers and students criticized the proposed cuts, while elected officials warned of a tax hike if costs increase.
“Quite a lot to contemplate and to process,” school board Chairman Jill McCammon remarked after listening to over 40 individuals express their concerns.
Advocating for more fiscal restraint, Representative Town Meeting members, who will vote on the school budget after it’s approved by the school board, urged the group to remember that taxpayers are footing the bill.
According to Board of Finance Chairman James Palen, the proposed 6.2 percent budget increase would likely generate a tax hike for residents. Palen asked the school board to “find more efficiencies” by looking at all programs and expenses.
“Financial stewardship and delivery of great education can coexist and have coexisted in this town for many years,” he said.
RTM Education Committee Chairman Ed Washecka expressed similar worries about additional spending and chastised members for failing to craft a fiscally responsible budget.
He was also frustrated that many of the board’s proposed revisions to Superintendent Alan Addley’s budget added to the cost.
“I don’t understand it,” he said. “Are we not in the same reality?”
Washecka reminded board members that the town recently approved an additional $20 million for renovations to Hindley, Holmes and Royle elementary schools, and that the town budget is not limitless.
“Where are the trade-offs? Is everything a priority?“ he asked.
But most speakers approached the podium with a different message, asking the board to restore the personnel cuts in the arts and language programs despite the expense.
“Education costs what education costs,” said Joanna Walsh, co-chair of the Council of Darien School Parents. Walsh said she is wary of the superintendent’s changes and warned they would hurt the district’s teacher retention efforts and affect student experiences.
She said the budget devalues the importance of music, art, theater and world language, and that Addley “did not fully think about the rippling effect the changes would have on students who have found their home in these disciplines.”
And although the superintendent’s budget did not include reductions to the district’s mental health initiatives, they were nonetheless thrust into the spotlight after one board member proposed eliminating funding for the mental health director and Wellness Center coordinator during last week’s meeting.
Both positions were created following the suicides of two Darien High School students in 2022. Wave Strong Foundation president and mother of one of those students, Tracy McEvoy, spoke at the meeting and urged the members not to pursue a reduction in mental health services or providers.
She said the high school needs a mental health system to support students and that those resources were not in place when her son needed them.
“Our family did not have the knowledge or the support from the high school or his overburdened therapist to seek the right type of help he needed, and Matthew lost his battle,” she said.
McEvoy praised Darien’s mental health Director Dr. Alycia Dadd and high school Wellness Center Coordinator Judy Phillips for making a positive impact on students in a short amount of time.
Citing the recent suicide of a high school student in Ridgefield, McAvoy said Dadd was instrumental in the district’s efforts to reach out to the Ridgefield community with advice and support.
“Dr. Dadd has made herself tangible to the Darien community with her empathy and expertise,” she said.
Shannon Dey, a lifelong Darien resident, added, “It is highly concerning for our community of parents that these mental health resources are even up for discussion.”
School board member David Brown, who proposed the elimination of the salaried mental health positions, defended his action as an impetus for members to discuss the effectiveness of the programs.
“We just throw FTEs willy-nilly and everything gets fixed,” he argued. “I disagree with that approach and some of these cuts reflect that.”
Brown explained that the mental health initiatives deserve a closer look if the programs “are not actually serving the purposes they were designed to serve.”
The board meets for a final vote on the school budget on Feb. 13.
This story has been updated to correct the date of the final vote.