The Representative Town Meeting on Monday passed a $120.2 million budget for the 2012-2013 fiscal year beginning July 1, a 4.6 percent increase which will raise taxes by 3.93 percent.
The RTM approved a mill rate increase from the present $12.20 (per $1,000 of assessed value) to $12.68.
In a series of unanimous or nearly unanimous votes, the RTM voted for the budget as recommended by the Board of Finance, including its recommended operating budget of $79,984,182 for education. The budget increased 4.8 percent, or about $3.6 million.
The Finance Board had made slight cuts to the Board of Education's proposed budget and no cut to the $40,250,354 town-side operating budget proposed by the Board of Selectmen, which rose by 3.74 percent.
That town-side budget includes a $24.6 million budget directly related to town operations, which will rise 2.5 percent from the previous year, and a $3.2 million budget for town library operations, which will rise by 2 percent, according to Board of Finance Chair Liz Mao. Although the town finances the library's operating budget, the money works like a grant, since the library is independent.
Education spending received nearly all of the attention of RTM members and speakers, and special education costs came in for the most complaints, even by those who said they supported the budget.
In recommending to pass the Board of Finance's version of the school budget, Bruce G. Orr, chairman of the RTM Finance and Budget Committee, pointed out that special education was one of the chief reasons for the budget increase this year and especially over the past five years.
"While the BOE [Board of Education] and the [school district] administration have taken positive steps to contain the costs of special education thisyear, it remains a major driver in the recent year's increases," Orr said. (See Orr's prepared comments attached to this article.)
"[W]e have challenged the BOE and the district administratio to take steps to get these rising costs under control, ahile providing a free and quality education to all students. They have agreed to address the problem and continue the efforts made this fiscal year. Our committee would like to see the problem addressed in a more aggressive fashion, including retaining outside, independent resources to accelerate the process."
Jack Davis, vice chairman of the committee, repeated to the RTM a suggestion he had made at other meetings that an independent consulting company should review the town's special education operations to see where efficiencies might be found.
Orr continued: "Some basic facts. Including next year's proposed increase of 6.5 percent in Special Ed gross expenditures (that is, prior to any state ECR [state aid]), the five-year compounded annual growth rate of gross special education expenses has been 7.8 percent per year. While everything else in the education budget has been increasing at 3.8 percent per year."
Orr and Mao both told the RTM that their panels had decided not to cut the proposed education budget further because that would likely mean laying off teachers and adversely affecting the quality of the town's public schools. (See Mao's prepared comments attached to this article.)
Superintendent Steven Falcone was asked to explain what he had been doing to bring down special education costs, which grew much more slowly this year than in previous years.
Falcone gave a brief summary: More special education was taking place inside Darien schools rather than transporting children to special programs elsewhere; some expensive consultants had been replaced by hiring less expensive "in house" employees (such as speech therapists and occupational therapists) to work with special education students; efficiencies have been introduced by providing some special education services at the same time to groups of students with the same problems; employees have worked as parts of teams and getting to know individual students' needs better; and having special education students in regular classrooms where appropriate.
Board of Education Chair Elizabeth Hagerty-Ross said Falcone's administration had been able to bring down special education costs from 13 percent increases to about 4 percent (her figures counted state aid).
At another point in the meeting, Mao made a similar point: "Although the special ed budget increased again dramatically, the rate of increase has slowed, and we are confident that the administration has taken our advice to heart and implemented cost-saving efficiencies in delivering SPED [special education] services. We look forward to further progress next year."
Hagerty-Ross she was pleased with the vote, and she and the board "look forward to accepting the challenges that have been identified before us."