Editor's note: Whether you agree or disagree with spending more money on Darien schools, this presentation by the co-chairs of the Council of Darien School Parents gives a clear, well-organized picture of why the budget has risen, how Darien has been spending some of its money and some of the most important circumstances that have led to increasing requests for money.
This talk and the accompanying slides (referred to in the talk) were presented at the Feb. 7 Board of Education public hearing on the budget.
Since then, the Board of Education voted on its proposed budget, (making some cuts to the superintendent's proposed budget), and that is to be officially passed on to the Board of Finance on March 13, with the first finance board budget meeting on March 20. The Representative Town Meeting will also vote on the budget. Opinions expressed here are those of the parents council.
By Margot Congdon and Terrie Van de Graaf
Good Evening. My name is Margot Congdon, and I reside at 85 Pembroke Rd. I have three children: one at the high school, one in school outside the district and one at Middlesex. My name is Terrie Van de Graaf, and I reside at 61 Echo Dr. North. I have two children: one at the high school and one at Middlesex.
We are the co-chairs of the Council of Darien School Parents. Thank you for allowing us the opportunity to speak tonight. We are here to speak in support of the Superintendent’s proposed budget, a budget that has already been highly scrutinized.
We would like to start by thanking the members of the Board of Education for your tireless efforts to improve our schools and your dedication to the education of all of our children. We believe that you have been extremely effective stewards of the school system given the resources allocated to education in Darien.
Last year, representatives of the Council of Darien School Parents analyzed our spending over the past four years. While the Superintendent’s Proposed Budget was initially decried as excessive, we showed last year that it was critical to look behind the numbers, because taking into account enrollment increases and inflation, our per student spending was flat.
In fact, factoring out spending on special education, real spending overall had actually declined steadily since 2007. We applaud the Board of Ed for acknowledging this alarming trend, and the Board of Finance for fully funding the requested education budget last year. While this was a commendable first step, we still have a lot of ground to make up.
This year again, budget priorities, coupled with the growth of special education, an underfunded state mandate, continue to put unprecedented pressure on the classrooms in our town. And, it’s not only our classroom resources that are stressed—Darien also continues to see a rise in the number of school children in crisis. We recognize the difficult economic situation all around us. Nonetheless, it is time for the town to reassess its commitment to quality education—and the investment our community makes in it.
But what does that mean today in light of our town’s changing demographics, a globalized and technology-centered economy and the comparative education programs of our peer towns? Our schools have been excellent, but sustaining excellence in any endeavor requires realistic assessment, strategic vision and financial investment in both our existing assets and new initiatives.
In this speech, we will look at what we have been spending, how this compares toother towns, and, finally, why we believe this budget should be approved by the Board of Ed with minimal reductions.
[1. Pie Chart] Let us start with a broad overview of the Superintendent’s proposed budget for 2012-13. The proposed total budget is $84,081,085. This is a 4.1 percent increase over the current year’s adjusted budget.
As you can see, Operating Spending and Equipment, about 6 percent of the budget, end up being the only discretionary portions, as special education, contractual obligations and fixed expenses comprise nearly 94 percent of the budget. The district also typically receives revenues that offset the budget expenses. [2. Drivers Chart] These are things like field fees and summer school revenues. But, by far the biggest offset in the budget is reimbursement from the state in the form of special education excess costs, a source of funding which is unpredictable, untimely and declining.
Since the economic downturn, the level of state reimbursement for eligible expenses has fallen significantly. This means that the district is then forced to cover the state’s obligations, as well. The order of magnitude for this variance is 500,000 to $1,000,000. Even more challenging is that the reimbursement—at whatever level the state determines—is not received until well after the services have been delivered.
This puts the Board of Ed in the unenviable position of having to cut costs across the district in the middle of a school year after the shortfall from the state becomes evident. As you can see in this chart, the shortfall in the state’s contribution is anticipated to be nearly a million dollars next year, which has a major impact on the net budget.
[3. Reasons for Budget Growth Chart] Suddenly, a 4.1 percent increase becomes a 5.6 percent increase. When the Board of Finance recently visited the Board of Ed, they acknowledged the state’s default on its excess cost obligations, and the challenges it presents for the school budget. We are fortunate to have a Board of Finance that recognizes the impact of the state’s failure to pay, and the corresponding need to ensure that other services in the district are not underfunded as a result.
Growth in number of students
The Board of Finance also expressed their concern about funding budget increases in a period of flat enrollment. While this is nominally accurate based on next year’s total enrollment projection, we think it makes sense to look at the enrollment numbers in more detail. [4. Enrollment chart] In this chart, you can see that over the last 5 and 10 years, Darien’s enrollment growth has outpaced all of our neighbors, as young families were drawn to our town. During these years, we spent mainly to support enrollment and essential programs.
[5. Enrollment Composition chart] Next year, Elementary is projected to lose 3 students. Middlesex is projected to lose 29 students—and the budget reflects the reduction of a quarter of a team there. But notably, these decreases are offset by the projected increase at the high school of 34 students.
Of more impact, however, is the wholly unexpected entry of 60 students into special education programming that happened this fall. These 60 students, except those requiring out-of-district placement, were accommodated through the efficiencies derived from ongoing special education initiatives. These 60 students bring Darien’s special education prevalence to over 13 percent of our total school population, which, incidentally, is higher than the state average, and significantly higher than our peer towns.
We know that educating at the high school level is more costly than at the elementary or middle school level, and it is considerably more expensive to deliver special education services—22 percent of the gross budget is devoted to 629 children. So while the numbers suggest a flat enrollment, a realistic analysis of the composition and distribution of our student population shows that additional funding is indeed required.
Operating costs: special education and the rest
Now let’s focus on operating spending in order to have a clearer picture of what is getting into the classrooms. [6. Pie Chart: Operating Spending Slices] Things like textbooks, consumables, teaching supplies and professional development. [7. Five-Year Operating Spending Chart] On a per student basis, operating spending on special education, which accounted for 36 percent of total operating spending in 2007, now accounts for 52 percent.
If we exclude the special education costs, operating spending per student has declined an average of 2 percent per year from 2007 to 2010. Despite last year’s higher funding, we are still hovering at 2007 spending levels, even before adjusting for inflation. Why is this important? [8. Deferrals Chart] Because the methods and tools of education do not stand still. Textbooks change. Curriculum needs to be modified. Teachers need to stay on the cutting edge. This chart lists items that our teachers and administrators have requested and been denied over the last several years.
Darien schools compared to similar towns
Let’s turn our attention to how Darien’s per student spending has compared with the other towns in our District Reference Group [PDF]. [9. DRG Spending Per Student Chart] We spent less per student than all but one of our peer towns, despite being ranked 3rd in the state in our ability to pay based on property values and income.
As we can see in this chart, Darien spent approximately $600 less per student per year than the average expenditure of the towns in our Reference Group. We spent $2000 less per student per year than Weston, and approximately $1500 less than Westport and New Canaan last year.
If Darien spent at the Reference Group average, this would mean, in one year alone, an additional $2.9 million dollars available to support our essential programs—and perhaps more importantly, to make strategic investments.
Now we want to be very clear. We are not suggesting that Darien should be spending $2,000 or even $1,500, more per student per year, but we should be cognizant of what programs and services the children in peer towns are receiving that Darien students are not.
We know they have elementary language programs, they have adequate social worker and psychologist staffing, more robust support of technology and professional development for their teachers, and more materials for their classrooms—exactly what we are asking you to support tonight.
Changes in the budget
[10. Modifications Chart] With this backdrop, take a look at the modifications to the proposed budget that are under consideration by the Board of Ed.
From left to right, we have:
• Equipment (such as tables and chairs)
• Staffing to maintain class-sizes and availability at DHS
• Operating Spending (for things like textbooks, professional development, workbooks)
• A Psychologist for the high school and the middle school, and a Social Worker to be shared among the elementary schools
• World Language (through the introduction of Spanish at the five elementary schools)
• Infrastructure Maintenance
• And, on the far right, add-backs to special education, a proposed addition to the budget, which we support as a necessity toward realistic assessment of our special education costs.
In the aggregate, these modifications represent $442,000 in “cuts”—cuts, which if taken, would dramatically impact the daily delivery of education to our children, but yet, are not enough to knock off even a half percentage point from the 4 percent budget increase. We ask the Board for sensible rationalization of these modifications under consideration, preserving funds for needed equipment, staffing, operations and maintenance.
We expect, as always, that you will carefully consider the new initiatives and needed attention to necessary maintenance, as investments in our students and our infrastructure. Regarding support for technology, we respect the economies you have suggested in the budget this year, and we look forward to your development and commitment to a technology plan going forward.
Most importantly, we hope you will work collaboratively to strive for realistic budgeting of special education costs. Doing so is paramount to ensuring proper funding and an excellent education across all student populations.
Schools and the town
As you consider modifications to this budget, we urge you to reflect on Darien’s demographics and how they have shifted over the last several years. It is no wonder that our enrollment has been growing faster and more consistently than our peer towns. Darien’s convenience to Metro-North, our public schools, housing opportunities and reasonable taxes, make Darien appealing to young families.
Unlike 10 years ago, we can now say that the majority of Darien taxpayers and their families are directly impacted by the health of our school system. According to the most recent census data, our town has the highest percentage of population under the age of 18 in the state of Connecticut. A full 23 percent of our town’s residents are children attending our public schools. But regardless of whether they have children in our public schools, all taxpayers have a vested interest in the excellence of Darien schools.
In an article in December 2010 entitled “Connecticut’s Most Youthful Town”, the Hartford Courant noted that Darien’s growth was not because of new houses going up, but rather “because empty-nesters sell their houses to young families with children.” We all need people who consider moving here to be able to look at our schools and believe that their children will have an education which is at
least comparable to the education they would receive in towns like New Canaan, Westport and Greenwich, the towns to which we are often compared.
So what is our vision of a quality education for our 4,817 school-age children? We expect that they will be prepared to thrive in a technology-driven and increasingly global world. Accomplishing this requires that we provide the basics, but also invest in initiatives that will equip them with twenty-first century skills. Thank you.