For about two hours at its public hearing Tuesday, Board of Finance members heard essentially the same message from a string of speakers: Spend more on the town's children.
Nearly all of the speakers asked the board to support the 5.3 percent increase in the budget for Fiscal Year 2012-2013, an additional $4 million over this year's spending.
Although there has been plenty of support among Representative Town Meeting members for reining in spending, RTM Moderator Karen Armour , none of that was evident at the public hearing, which drew about 100 people into the auditorium. There was little publicity for the meeting except in the Darien News, which was published last week with a copy of the town budget.
"Failure to fully fund this budget will jeopardize Darien's 'competitive edge' and could significntly alter how we deliver education in our town," Margot Congdon, co-chair of the , told the board. "Sometimes the most conservative decision is to act to protect something important that may be lost."
Terrie Van de Graaf, the other co-chair of the council, told the board that most of the $4 million budget increase is made up of higher special education costs and other state mandated spending ($1.7 million), and fixed costs, together with the recently approved teacher's union contract and other contractual obligations ($1.6 million).
That leaves a bit less than $700,000 for increases in all other areas of the budget, including "the new curriculum initiative, mental health professionals, equipment, maintenance, technology and non-special education operating spending," Van de Graaf said. (The speech is attached to this article in the PDF section, together with a slide presentation, separately attached in the same section.)
Patty McCormick, the budget representative for Ox Ridge Elementary School, spoke in favor of adding a school psychologist to be shared between and as well as a social worker for the town's five elementary schools. (Her full speech is attached to this article in the PDF section.) The two positions are expected to cost $70,000 each, along with health-care costs for each.
"[T]he need is driven by a significant increase in the number of general education students, across all grades, experiencing emotional and behavioral issues that negatively affect their ability to learn," McCormick said.
"The Child Guidance Center reports a 37 percent increase in crisis-specific calls from Darien between July 1st and December 31st, the two first quarters of its 2012 fiscal year," McCormick said.
"Our elementary school principals are making from two to five crisis calls a month," she said. "Since September, DHS and Middlesex each had 20 to 30 students struggling with a variety of issues. At DHS, 10 students have returned from short-term hospitalizations for mental health issues and seven students have been admitted. To date, 10 calls have been made to the mobile crisis hotline by our secondary schools."
McCormick continued: "We need a social worker for our elementary schools. A social worker has specialized knowledge, training and expertise in areas our school administrators don't, and shouldn't be expected to have."
Jenny Bealle and Phoebe Cush, co-presidents of student governing board, asked the Board of Finance to support the $12,500 that the Board of Selectmen added to the youth center's budget.
"[I]n addition to the social and recreational programming the Depot has taken on a very vital role in the area of prevention services," the girls said in their prepared statement (attached to this article in the photos section).
"In recent years, these programs have grown. We offer programs to high-school-aged students, to middle-school-aged students and to parents in the hopes that they will be more informed and empowered."
Editor's note: Several presentations to the Board of Finance, most of them from the Council of Darien School Parents, have been added to this article. Due to a technical difficulty, some collected Tuesday evening have not been added yet. Anyonne who spoke at the public hearing is invited to email in their prepared comments or post them directly to this article. Letters to the editor from any point of view are also welcome. Please email them to Darien@Patch.com.