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Letter: Cost of Shuffle Unlikely to Hurt Ed Spending

In a letter to the editor, RTM Member Debra Ritchie says members of the Board of Education and town education officials have told her that, historically, spending on capital projects like the Shuffle hasn't crimped spending on education.

To the editor:

I am a mother of three and on the RTM serving on Finance and Budget and it’s Education subcommittee.  My goals are operating the town efficiently and providing our children with the best education possible.  After significant study I voted for the shuffle because I believe it is the best alternative in terms of cost and facilities usage available to Darien. 

Some are concerned the shuffle will take money from our children’s education.  As part of my diligence I directly contacted members of our school administration, and current and former members of the Board of Education.  I urge you all to do the same. Their responses were consistent:  historically, capital projects of this nature do not impact spending on Education.

If you vote "no", another option will come, but that too will have a cost to the town and maybe not only in tax rates.  Vote Yes.  Visit voteyesdarien.com.

Debra Ritchie

RTM District V

Stop The Shuffle December 02, 2011 at 08:04 PM
Please visit www.StopTheShuffle.com to learn the facts behind this non-partisan, grass roots effort in Darien to halt the “Shuffle”
Chapin December 02, 2011 at 09:19 PM
Ritchie/Sini, We are not involved in the Foreign language debate but respect that supporters of the Shuffle stop making statements that are misleading and not accurate. Ms. Ritchie cites that capital projects do not impact spending on Education. The reality is that "capital" projects do impact recurring "operating budgets". The Police/Weed projects will "cost" roughly $1.5m in fiscal 12/13 or nearly 1.25% of the projected Town operating budget. The only possible way to finance increased spending is via increasing the mill rate or finding cuts in other line items. Adding $400k/year for the Shuffle increases pressure on the Operating budget. Do I need to remind everyone that Falcone submitted a $77.2m budget in Jan 2011. At the time Chairman Mao (cited in the Darien times link above) was quoted as saying, "We want to convey that you folks take a hard look, and justify your expenses,” “We found the six percent increase to be unacceptable. Taking a look at the eight percent, we are not even going to comment on it because it is too high.” Citing the hardship of Darien residents who are unemployed and underemployed — as well as those who remain employed but are not earning increases in their salaries. In May, the school budget was reduced to $76.3m, a $900k drop from its proposed budget. Given large buckets of the BOE expense structure are subject to contractual increases, cuts in the budget had to come from initiatives including social work and Foreign language.
Chapin December 02, 2011 at 09:24 PM
Sorry..bad MAC..typo above..should read "request" not "respect"
John Sini December 02, 2011 at 09:39 PM
Deb Richie's letter is spot on. For further proff read this week's Darien Times article on the topic: http://www.darientimes.com/news/darien-features/local-news/5001929-how-would-shuffle-affect-school-spending-not-much.html
John Sini December 02, 2011 at 09:40 PM
Mr/Mrs Chapin, I simply direct you to read this week's Darien Times where the following quotes appeared: "I don't think there will be any costs associated with a building move that would impact anything in our budget. They are two different things. This is not a trade off in my mind." - Dr. Falcone, Superintendent of Darien Schools "To speculate that somehow I would recommend cutting Board of Education budgets in order to support the Shuffle project is not reflective of the facts on record." -- Mrs. Mao, Chairman of the Board of Finance.
Chapin December 02, 2011 at 09:55 PM
Mr. Sini, I read the article last night when I returned home and quite honestly laughed so hard. Judge people based on actions, not statements. I don't care what Falcone and Mao state in an interview. The numbers are the numbers. Earlier this year items were cut from the BOE budget by Falcone and Mao. We can debate (I have no view on foreign language) the merits of those programs but to argue her past actions should be used as precedent going forward is comical. In addition, money is fungible and finite. Roughly 10% of the Town's budget is debt service (including the Shuffle), a fixed expense. Another 6% is also fixed and growing (Police retiree, town medical etc) growing 10% year. Roughly 50% of the Town budget is BOE personnel increasing 4%/yr, fixed. Another 15% of the budget = fixed costs (RC-25 per the budget process) related to the BOE, again fixed. I think we just covered ~80% of the budget that is "untouchable". It would be refreshing for someone, anyone in office to come out and state that we will not face budget constraints because officials will continue to raise the mill rate mid to high single digits because absent that lever, the Town's budget is going to be a real problem in several years. I did not even mention the grand list. When homes are re-assessed, my bet is that a fairly large number of people will seek to have their residences assesed lower than than '07-09 levels placing more pressure on the budget. I hope I am wrong on this point
John Boulton December 02, 2011 at 10:00 PM
M/M Chapin, With all due respect, the scare tactics to the school parents by the Stop The Shuffle crowd have been misleading as well. The truth is neither side is on firm ground in claiming to know exactly how future budgets will play out, with or without the Shuffle. However, it is instructive to note that the Board of Finance's 5 Year Forecast has both Shuffle debt service and a healthy increase in Board of Ed operating budgets included. That is not a binding document, but it does show the Board of Finance is planning for both. You also assume that the roughly $400k or so in annual Shuffle carrying cost will be available for the schools to use. That is likely not true. That money will go to emergency repairs to the Senior Center building, since maintenance has been deferred for years anticipating resolution of this issue. There is a cost for saying "No", and this cost will not be bonded, it will come out of current spending. My experience is that the Board of Finance has always supported our schools, even while committing to over $130 million in Town and BOE capital projects over the past 15 years. They don't write blank checks, but the schools get what they need. I don't believe approving the Shuffle will change that dynamic at all. The schools will remain Darien's #1 priority, I just believe it need not be the only one.
sebastian dangerfield December 02, 2011 at 11:50 PM
Chapin are you saying in the end, the18m police station hurt the quality of education? (and that you want an increase of 5+ mio year to year--but dont want an increase of 400k for a community center?) or are you saying that the school budget increased at an acceptable level--and that it obviously was not affected by the police station?
Debra Ritchie December 02, 2011 at 11:59 PM
I was directly quoting members of school administration and BOE so if you feel the comments are inaccurate you should direct your questions to them. In reality what impacts Educational spending the most is spending on Education.
Chapin December 03, 2011 at 12:28 PM
Ritchie, Sini, Boulton and Luca, We are merely pointing out the inconsistency by Ms. Mao in her statements vs. prior actions as well as highlighting that capital projects do have an impact on the Town's operating budget. Again, we have no horse in the Foreign language debate but from brief reading, people in this Town clearly care about that initiative. People care about a Town pool. People care about a host of other pet projects. Students pay activity fees to play sports, etc. Our contention from the beginning has been about prudent use of Town's resources. Budgeting (both capital and operating) are about trade-offs, now more than ever. Was the Police Station a mistake? We were not part of the process so we can't venture a guess. That being said, it is not relevant to the current discussion. The central question that opponents are asking is "Does the Shuffle's cost justify the benefit?" Was that question posed about the $18 million Police Station? Is that part of the Foreign Language debate? Each project/program needs to stand on its own two feet. Lastly, we never said the $400k would be available for the schools to use. We noted layering on more debt puts additional pressures on the operating budget that is largely fixed and growing at a rapid rate. Money does not grow on trees. It is finite. In the Town's projections, the mill rate increases on average 5%/year with the grand list growing. I hope we don't have to make tougher choices in the future.
John Sini December 03, 2011 at 12:53 PM
Chapin, that is understood. What seems to go missing in the debate is that any suitable alternative to the Shuffle will likely cost just as much as the Shuffle, bring less benefit to the town, and cause significant delay in solving a clear and present problem. There have been two comprehensive needs based analysis for the senior center, by two different administrations of two different political parties which yielded a very similar conclusion, at a similar cost to taxpayers.
David Genovese December 03, 2011 at 02:11 PM
Three questions for the Anti-Shuffle Folks, and Mac Marshman: 1. How could you argue for leasing office space for the BOE, when rents are in the $30 per square foot plus electric of $2.50 per square foot or so today for the B-quality buildings, and you will be at the mercy of the landlord forever? Once you commit to that course, if you cannot agree on a rent at the renewal of the lease, the BOE's only alternatives are to pay whatever rent the landlord wants in the future (hint, it won't likely be lower) or move to another location. Given the size of the BOE need, which is about 3x larger than the typical tenant in Darien, there are very few spaces that could accommodate the BOE, even today. 2. What if the Town did decide to sell 35 Leroy, and achieved a price of only $2.0 million. That is a possibility given the risks associated with zoning, and the market volatility we see today. Would your analysis change if the probability of a sale at $2.0 million is greater than 30, maybe 50 percent? My comment about the potential value of 35 Leroy has been distorted and widely used to achieve a goal. I've explained this to anyone who has reached out to discuss it, but interestingly, none of the Anti-Shuffle folks have reached out to ask more about potential values for that property. 3. With the comments seen lately from the Superintendent of Schools and various elected officials, are you still really confident of your view that the Shuffle will impair Board of Ed fundin?
not2bdenied December 04, 2011 at 01:26 AM
Mr.Genovese - I find it curious that you now attempt to walk back your comments with respect to the value of the Leroy property. Your remarks were clear and unmistaken, stating the value of Leroy of at least $4.8 million. Even now you cast further doubt where due to the volatility of the market one could easily speculate that Leroy is in fact worth more than your expertly stated claim of $4.8 million.Your words Mr.Genovese. Flip flopping now, while quite popular these days, is so disingenuous.
David Genovese December 04, 2011 at 03:59 AM
To be clear, not2bdenied, I never said that the value was $4.8 million. I stated, at a Board of Selectmen meeting which I attended for a different reason and after listening to a bunch of yammering about how the Town overpaid for 35 Leroy, that the property could be worth up to $4.8 million. That is a very different statement than saying that the property is worth $4.8 million. If the Town is willing to allow a significant development of that property, with say 50 units of housing, I do believe that the site coudl be worth up to $4.8 million. I believe, as a real estate professional, that an 8-30G application could be submitted on that site for up to 50 units, maybe more. Some of the questions that should be considered then are: (i) if you live on Leroy, Old Stone Road, or in Middlesex Commons, is that acceptable to you, (ii) does the Town really want to sell this property, (iii) how does Tokeneke School feel about getting an influx of students from 50 units or more of housing at Leroy, (iv) how does the Town feel about getting the influx of students from 50 units of housing. Key to consider is that Allen O'Neil is going to expand significantly, and this will certainly have an impact on our school age population, in the next few years. The issues are not nearly as simple as you, and some of the Anti-Shuffle people, try to present them. You can call me any time to discuss my very specific views on valuation of this property. I am in the phonebook.
AlleyCat December 04, 2011 at 01:16 PM
Mr. Genovese, I too have a hard time believing that 35 Leroy is only worth $2 million. And what is lost in all of this is that in an attempt to figure out how to use 35 Leroy, we are still left owning the Senior Center property with no concrete plan for it, and if affordable housing goes there, how do the residents on Edgerton feel? And why would that be senior housing, but 35 Leroy cannot be? The 35 Leroy property is truly in downtown Darien, that is where affordable housing should go. As for the Tokeneke folks, of which I am one, 35 Leroy would fall into the Royle school district as would any property built on Edgerton. Tokeneke happily welcomed the ELP program, the majority of which is now housed at Tokeneke because Hindley is busting at the seams, we happily welcomed the Avalon kids because Holmes was busting at the seams, and we have happily welcomed the 100 or so families who have moved into the district as new owners or renters of homes that could not be sold in these difficult times moved into the district. Surprisingly, our brand new school is busting at the seams and went from a population of just under 400 to over 500 in a few short years and actually has gone over the district's student projections the last 2 years. Another example of the town not thinking ahead when the school was built. Should 35 Leroy become affordable housing, those kids would have to go to Royle because Hindley and Tokeneke simply do not have the space.
David Genovese December 04, 2011 at 02:07 PM
If you were to do senior affordable housing at 35 Leroy, the value of the housing when you are done is basically equal to the cost of construction, so there is no land value. That is why the lease with the other developer proposed for 35 Leroy was so low. If you do all the housing on an affordable basis, you have no land value, so total loss of the $4 million, but the positive is, you create senior housing. I agree, you could do senior affordable housing at 35 Leroy, but then you have to take the senior center down, and build a new one, which means that for some extended period of time there is no Darien Senior Center. I think that is one of the ancillary benefits of the Shuffle Concept. We never have downtime for the seniors. As for which school district, I"m not sure, but my company owns 1096 Post Road (old Fairbanks store) and 1020 Post Road, and the apartment tenants there go to Tokeneke. I will check on that, I assumed (never a good idea) that 35 Leroy being so close to those locations is in the Tokeneke district.
John Sini December 04, 2011 at 02:16 PM
Not2Be & AlleyCat, I always get a chuckle out of those that don't have the backbone to post their own name end up calling people "disingenuous." It’s simply sad that neither of you don’t have the self-confidence to post your own name while criticizing others, especially someone who is a long-time resident that is very well respected in Darien. Moreover, unlike Mr. Genovese’s posts, the reader has no idea how to gauge the anonymous blogger’s real estate expertise to make an assessment on the validity of their post. Mr. Genovese has done well respected work in this town, redeveloping old and creating new, more valuable properties which have benefitted not only himself, but all taxpayers in Darien. If there’s one person you would seek counsel regarding commercial real estate values in Darien, it would be Mr. Genovese. I’ll answer a couple of your questions: 1> It makes no sense to tear down 35 Leroy when it is in very good shape. 2> Senior affordable housing relative to affordable housing makes tremendous sense, since it doesn’t bring more school aged residents to town, which will further stress the school budget.
Susan Vogel December 04, 2011 at 02:57 PM
David, I think 35 Leroy would be Royle School, as Old Stone Road is part of the Royle School district, but you should confirm, I will try as well. I like your comment about senior housing at 35 Leroy because it is the appropriate location (close to town, shopping, restaurants and transportation) and we need it. I met a 75 year old man yesterday who has lived in town for 43 years and can't afford to stay here any longer. He lamented the fact that he hadn't gotten on the list for Clock Hill. As a taxpayer for 43 years in town, his only choice shouldn't be between Norwalk and Stamford. As for the senior center, I've heard from a few people at the Sugar Bowl on Thursday that there was a discussion about phasing (much like the schools) the construction of a new senior center on the current site. While some said it wasn't possible, Mr. Conze acknowledged that it could be done. Another option is to have seniors participate in their programs, at town cost, at the DCA during the construction. My biggest complaint about the shuffle is the moving of the BOE -- it is unnecessary. If the Town were to offer the BOE $2.6 million in capital dollars from a bond issue, I don't think the first choice of the BOE would be to move/renovate office space as there is a laundry list of capital projects at the schools. If borrowing is inexpensive, as the BOF has stated in its support of this project, then borrow to fund the capital projects on the BOE's list not to move and renovate offices.
David Genovese December 04, 2011 at 03:18 PM
I checked, 35 Leroy would be Royle...a reminder not to assume! Susan, the reason I like the shuffle, especially if it is tied to senior housing at Edgerton Street, is because we modernize the Town Hall building and set the Town up well for the future (sprinklering that portion of the building is a good idea, upgrading the mechanical systems will lower operating costs), we eliminate a dilapidated structure (existing senior center) which is horribly inefficient in terms of energy consumption and not apprpriate for our seniors, we use more efficiently the Town Hall space that isn't used today and which we are paying for, and we end up with the same number of senior housing units as if we or someone else redeveloped 35 Leroy. It is a more efficient, environmentally responsible approach. We are only knocking down the dilapidated structure, and we're using more efficiently resources/assets we already paid for. Maybe we could build a new senior center in phases, but the ultimate cost would be not that different than the cost of the shuffle, and in the end, we won't have modernized a significant portion of Town Hall. I will check in with you later here, I have to run out with my family for the day and night (we have an appointment with Santa tonight!). Take care. David
John Sini December 04, 2011 at 04:02 PM
Susan, To underscore Mr. Genovese's last point, please take a look at this link of study done in '07-'08 which outlines the cost of a new, standalone Sr. Center on Edgarton at almost $6.5 million (but excludes soft costs). Note that this study, like Mr. Campbell's this was a resut of a needs based analysis conducted by experts in the field. http://www.voteyesdarien.com/More_Information_files/Darien%20Senior%20Activities%20Center%20%282007%29.pdf
eat December 04, 2011 at 06:50 PM
Darien is spending $1,000 less per student than Wilton, and $2,000 less per student than New Canaan,Weston, Greenwich and Westport. Does anyone know why?
sebastian dangerfield December 04, 2011 at 11:17 PM
Its funny to read : David Genovese says value up to 4.8 mio. Anti Shuffle--embrace it. And quote him. They hold up that he is an expert. Then-David Genovese says the 4.8 mio figure was the potential. That there were many caveats in that determinant value--and in fact he thinks its possible its only worth 2 mio. Here--the anti shuffle crowd, pipes up--Mr Genovese needs to be debated!! "I dont think its worth 2 mio.!" Oh ok. So? Is mr Genovese an expert of not? I guess he is when it suits your agenda----and then the person calls it disingenous? Haha. Next--I know Chapin says the police station is in the past, but can any anti shuffle people inform the public on how poor the quaility of education has become, since that capital project has been included in the budget? How often has the BOF referenced the police station when they commented on the BOE budget? And most importantly can nottobedenied etal, tell us what BOE budget increase would be considered negatively affecting the quality of education. If the education budget was chopped to 2% increase, would that make you mad? Or confirm that capital projects materially affect eductaion budgets?
Chapin December 05, 2011 at 01:51 AM
Luca No one can say for certain that any one project can impact another project, however the Town's budget faces meaningful headwinds as fixed costs going forward increase at a rate well in excess of the rest of the budget. The Police station definitely has an impact. Since 2005/2005, enrollment in the Darien school system has increased meaningfully, credit in large part to the great resources of the community. By comparison, every school in the broadly defined reference group of schools had student growth significantly lower than Darien. Four towns actually experienced a reduction in school population (Ridgefield, New Canaan, Easton and Reading). Do crowded class rooms negatively impact the delivery of education? I am not an educator but I would hazard a guess, yes. Just to pick a few examples. Excluding contractual increases in personnel, the Music department's operating budget will decline yr/yr despite more students. Art is roughly flat. Library services down yr/yr. Technology education basically flat. Extra-curricular stipends up low single digits. Need I remind you Foreign language was cut, a school psychologist was cut out of the most recent budget.
sebastian dangerfield December 05, 2011 at 05:16 AM
Chapin-- Think you may have gone off on a tangent. Ill just ask again--did the 18 mio dollar police station materially affect the quality of education? Ill give you my answer--- The BOE budget was not at all affected by the 18 mio dollar police station. There is zero evidence to suggest that any program was cut as a result of any capital project; that all decisions with respect to education budget were done completely independent and without the slightest mention anywhere to capital projects that the town was involved in. To that end, I researched and could not find once in the last 10 years any mention during BOE session any mention of capital projects as being detrimental and prohibitive in the context of what we could afford to spend on education. Operatiing costs are mentioned. But not capital projects. No offense, but to say that "no one say that one project can impact another'---while purposefully vague, unfortunately loses the point for you. If no one can ever say which projects impact others--then you have to conclude that the anti-shuffle crowd assertions that spending money on capital projects will impact education--is simply not true. You just admitted that no one can ever make this conclusion. The cost of the HIgh School, the cost of renovating all the other schools, the weed beach project and the police station have never inhibited spending by the BOE. thestopthe shuffle crowd should be as vigilent in setting the record straight.
sebastian dangerfield December 05, 2011 at 01:48 PM
The police station is a problem for the anti-shuffle crowd. It basically serves as a way to demonstrate much of what the anti shuffle crowd is talking about is simply not true. The police station has not affected education. It was not opposed by these same people on their fiscal conservatism mantra. The anti shuffle people are simply pro-affordable housing people , cloaked in a new garb of fiscal conservatism." The problem is, when Robin wears his mask, most people can still see its Robin. He fools very few. If the the shuffle fails, there will be no new senior center push by these people. They put zero effort into the senior center project up until now, and will continue to put zero effort into it in the future. If the shuffle falls, they will claim victory and leave the seniors in their dilapidated building. Their only focus, is to have housing at 35 leroy, and all the masquerading that goes on, is disappointing. This referendum is a simple question to voters---do you want affordable housing at 35 leroy, or do you not. The anti shuffle crowd could not care less about how much a new senior center may or may not cost. They dont care one iota about a transfer of the BOE. They are unwilling to give up on affordable housing at 35 Leroy and simply are not honest about their intentions or objectives.
Chapin December 05, 2011 at 10:01 PM
Luca Perhaps you need a class in basic budgeting/accounting. Capital projects have a direct impact on operating budgets. In the case of the Police Station, the "recurring" annual impact of the capital project is $1.5 million. The proposed Shuffle will be a $400k cost. Add the Weed project and the town has to finance $2 million/year (amortize the cost of the projects) as a result of the three capital projects. Using the 10/11 baseline budget expenditure figure of roughly $110m, the three capital projects account for 2% growth in the overall budget. Was $18 million necessary? I can't argue the expense as I was not privy to the details but I would guess an $18m project would be put to a referendum in today's economic climate. Over the past several years, it is clear that educational space is becoming an issue. ELP has been "shuffled" while the Avalon students were redistricted, leaving friends and a short bus commute behind. Did the Town care about the impact on the Avalon students? What about the "activity fees" that are being charged? I believe the extra-curricular fee is $100. Some sports have additional fees on top of the $100. The $100 fee in its purest form is another tax. Bottom line, the numbers support pressure on the school budget.
Debra Ritchie December 05, 2011 at 10:59 PM
Please visit www.voteyesdarien.com. Click "More Information". There you will find "the cost of no".
sebastian dangerfield December 06, 2011 at 05:24 AM
Thanks chapin. I love these passive aggressive insults such as I need a class in BASIC budgeting. Awesome. I understand that they impact operating budgets, but nevertheless , for purposes of these discussions they are separate. So -I separated them. Just as you want me to take lessons, may I suggest that you brush up on the police station issue. That was passed, in the last 15 months. Not exactly sure when--but you somehow suggest that the current economy is far different than the current one. And given that you dont like to change anything in your statements, and find ways to slip into a new discussion, I wont bother asking why this economy is so vastly different than the one 1 1/2 years ago, so that the referendum here is correct and no referendum is correct. Whatever you say is right. 1.5 mio increase in operating expense is fine--and in no need of any analysis It has not affected the boe budget. But that fact cannot be acknowledged. It gets classified as "no one can say." As though the people who make these decisions are simply not people one can ask. Now the 400k? Somehow , people CAN SAY it WILL affect the education budget. How can they say? Doesnt matter....just have to trust the anti shuffle people on that one. Now you are going to bring up Avalon redistricting? Wow...just like Deb, you wont discuss the past, but you will discuss the past. Im amazed at how you can condescend so easily, but Im sure this past and that past are different.
Chapin December 08, 2011 at 01:37 PM
Luca, People are entitled to their own opinions but not facts. The Town has pursued capital projects close to $30 million over the past several years after the high school referendum. People forget the high school was also put to a referendum, as it should have been 10 years ago. During the same period, the underlying education budget excluding contractual wage and benefit increases has not increased even remotely close to the increase in the mill rate. The economy has indeed weakened over the past 15 months, so the situation is meaningfully different. In 2011 alone, Wall Street, the lifeline of Darien has shed over 200k jobs. The unemployment rate in Fairfield county is roughly 12% (I don't have figures for Darien). Median home prices are stagnant, yet the mill rate increases at 5%/year. It is clear that many in the Town have reached a tipping point. Perhaps the $18m for the Police Station didn't result in widespread opposition but tack on another $7m capital project and many residents have had enough. I am fairly confident if the Police Station was proposed today, it would be met with a similar level of opposition based simply on the economic climate.

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