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Darien Schools Face Deficit of $250K

Administrators eye reducing spending, personnel retirements to close gap

Darien Public Schools are currently facing a deficit of $250,000, prompting administrators to propose reducing spending on materials that are not directly related to student instruction.

Superintendent Stephen Falcone shared this news at a Board of Education meeting on Tuesday night. The cause stems from out-of-district settlements exceeding expectations, a sharp increase in the number of special education students from last year to this year, and the likelihood of the state lowering its reimbursement rate on excess cost grants.

“In the category of no good deed goes unpunished, we are not getting as much money back on excess costs,” Superintendent Stephen Falcone said.

The number of special education students increased from 562 on October 1, 2010, to 621 on Oct, 1, 2011. One reason for the increase of 59 students stems from pre-schoolers entering the district at age three. In forming the current budget, board members in 2010-2011 used 562 students as a basis for calculating expenses.

Falcone recommended the district save money by cutting spending by $110,000 on materials that do not relate directly to student instruction. School employees will be retiring within the next seven months, which will generate additional savings.

Additionally, Falcone proposed at least considering not filling oil tanks until next year.

About 20 people came to the meeting and sat in the audience. Susan Vogel asked Falcone to specify the materials that he envisions not buying in order to make up the shortfall. In response, Falcone mentioned poster papers, books on the Civil War, instructional materials, magazines, and expensive art program materials.

Board Chairman Elizabeth Hagerty-Ross described the projected shortfall as serious. Yet, she wants to prevent it from adversely impacting the students.  

“We do not want to affect the quality of education at this point in time,” Hagerty-Ross said.

Board member Clara Sartori expressed a similar sentiment.

“We will reduce spending on materials rather than cancel a program,” she said. Toward this end, the district can delay the purchase of materials for the time being. Conversely, a cancelled program is unable to be uncancelled.

Connecticut reimbursed Darien in excess cost grants at a rate of 78 percent last fiscal year. Board members and administrators predicted the state would reimburse the town at a rate between 70 percent and 74 percent this fiscal year.

“The complexities of this grant are causing us heartburn,” Richard Huot, the school district's director of finance, said. “The state is giving up on its obligations. They are passing the buck onto Darien taxpayers.”

RPM December 15, 2011 at 11:43 AM
Wondering how the Board was unaware of this dramatic change? Is there not a process in place that analyzes the number of students in the system, remaining and joining, standard Ed and Special Ed, prior to the school year? Or is budgeting completed too early to note? Is there a way to perhaps better align the two processes?
John Boulton December 15, 2011 at 02:45 PM
RPM, enrollment projections are hard, but not for lack of effort. The budget is based off the October 1 enrollment report, which contains projections for future enrollment based on past experience (report is on the darienps.org website). The administration starts working on the next budget within weeks of that report being issued, but it won't get voted on by the RTM until May (which is a legal date). If the BOE sees the enrollment number moving in the interim, it can always adjust its budget request. But think about it, most families move in the summer, after the RTM vote. When regular ed children show up, they can usually be absorbed without big issues or costs (the BOE often budgets a contingent elementary section, just in case). Special ed is problematic because 1) individual students may need expensive programs...it is not unusual for the BOE to have to hire unbudgeted aides and nurses, or incur out-of-district tuition and busing costs, after July 1 to accommodate new students, and 2) it is very difficult to predict the number of 3 year olds who will need to join the ELP pre-school program....the BOE tries, but it's an imprecise process at best (and ELP has to take the children the day they turn 3, not wait until September). That all said, the number of new students noted this year was a big number.
RPM December 15, 2011 at 03:00 PM
Thanks John, that all makes sense. And certainly relying on historical data is a reasonable approach. I know the BOE budget is separate from the town's, but wouldn't it be nice to have some kind of rainy day fund that all town services could depend on when issues arise? Darien is known for our incredible public education system and relatively low mil rate. I wonder if families will continue to move here in the same manner as our taxes continue to rise. I guess only time will tell. Thanks again for your courteous response.
sebastian dangerfield December 15, 2011 at 04:47 PM
RPM There is always a contingency fund. However , I assume you are not concerned about the imprecise budgeting concept, but rather the costs went over. If a bigger rainy day fund were created, Im thinking it would just cost everyone more. Money laying around, often gets spent. In this case they sought to find items that were non-essential and were able to close the gap.

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