Darien School Board Approves Historic Budget Hike, Restores Teaching Jobs

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DARIEN — The Board of Education approved a historic schools budget increase on Thursday, while restoring the vast majority of teaching positions cut in Superintendent Alan Addley’s $121.9 million plan.

The 6.48 percent increase, which will require a second board vote, would mark Darien’s largest schools budget hike in the past decade, with previous budgets averaging around a 3.7 percent increase. [See Editor’s note regarding the second board vote.]

Teacher pay raises and rising special education and health insurance costs are being blamed for the $7 million in additional spending. School districts across the state are facing similar fiscal challenges. 

To help keep expenditures in check, Addley had proposed eliminating eight teaching positions — five at Middlesex Middle School and three at the elementary school level.  

According to Addley, the proposed reductions at Middlesex were enrollment-based, as the middle school population has fallen by 114 students over the last five years. 

But parents and teachers pushed back on the proposed cuts amid concerns that the reductions would jeopardize the middle school’s team model.  

Board member John Sini defended the cuts in light of the middle school’s declining enrollment, pointing out that 40 instructors at Middlesex are only teaching four sections, one below their contractual obligations of five.   

“When there’s less littles in the classroom, it’s the board’s policy — and I would argue, its duty — to right size the numbers of the bigs being paid and supported by our taxpayers,” Sini said.  

A majority of board members ultimately voted to restore the five teaching positions, arguing the team model was too important to tamper with. 

“The team model is something that we have invested in and committed to for decades,” board member Julie Best said. “We have talked about its benefits. We see it on our website. We sell it to families. It’s a way to make the school feel smaller. It’s a way to make the kids feel like they have a home.”    

The board also voted to restore the art and music teaching positions at the five elementary schools. Many members expressed concern that the cuts could insinuate that Darien does not value the arts.  

“I can’t imagine the culture hit to not having a dedicated art teacher at your elementary school,” Best said. “To have days where the art studio is dark because your art teacher is somewhere else just is not elementary school. To me, it just doesn’t make sense.”

The approved budget also allocates $454,622 for two new assistant principal positions, one each at the high school and middle school, to spread the workload of attending mandatory planning meetings for special education students. 

With 19 percent of its students receiving special education services, Darien has a higher special education identification rate relative to neighboring school districts. According to Addley, the current workload for administrators is “just not manageable.”

As a cost-saving measure, the board approved a proposal for the town to bring special education transportation services in-house.  

Equating the effort to “running a small bus company,” Richard Rudl, the district’s finance director, said the proposal would save $400,000 in the fiscal year 2024-25 budget and additional savings down the road. The proposal, however, first requires the Representative Town Meeting to approve buying nine student transportation vehicles at a cost of $850,000.

The approved schools budget also hikes the annual parking fees for high school students from $110 to $200, to align with the Ridgefield school district’s rate. The change is expected to raise an additional $13,500 in revenue.  

Other revenue-generating proposals approved by the board include increasing the high school auditorium’s rental fee to $600 and raising the price of admission to the annual Turkey Bowl football game from $10 to $15. 

The Board of Education’s recommended budget now heads to the Board of Finance for review and approval.  

Editor’s note: Due to a transcription error, according to a school board member who notified CT Examiner on Saturday morning, the board approved $121.5 million for the FY25 budget on Thursday rather than the Superintendent’s budget of $121.9 million and will discuss amending the budget to $121.9 million at the next board meeting on Feb. 27.