Darien school board looks to streamline its budget approval process so they don't have '200 questions'

The Board of Education building in Darien, Conn., photographed on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022.

The Board of Education building in Darien, Conn., photographed on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022.

File / Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

DARIEN — Though the budget is out of their hands, the Darien school board is looking back on ways to update the budgeting process. 

In February, the Board of Education approved a $114 million budget for Darien Public Schools, shaving $2 million from the spending plan originally proposed by Superintendent Alan Addley. 

Though the Board of Finance did not discuss the details during the March 7 presentation of the school and town budgets, Chairman James Palen took a moment to commend the school board chairman, David Dineen, on the extensive discussions that began in January.

“In my 16 years of sort of being involved, I think it was one of the best, most holistic and efficiency focused budget discussions that I’ve heard,” Palen said. “I applaud you and all nine members of the board and the administration for how you really sort of dug into this and thought about and looked for efficiencies.”

Despite the high praise, the Board of Education is looking into how the month-long process could be made more efficient in future years, kicking off some early thoughts during the March 15 meeting.

“We’ve all had some ideas as we’ve been through this budget process, and some of us have been on the board for a while, so I think there’s a way to kind of look at it, look at the schedule, look at when people get involved,” Dineen said.

Board members seemed to agree on one thing needed going forward: a more proactive role in the budget’s development. 

Member John Sini suggested changing how the superintendent’s proposed budget is presented to the board and larger public, streamlining a process that currently generates a high volume of questions for school administration.

“I think we probably had well over 200 questions when it was said and done between the Board of Ed and then the partners, and I think it just becomes unwieldy,” Sini said. “We don’t want this to be exclusionary, but we want to make sure that we have the order of operation so we can be most productive in producing a Board of Ed adopted budget.”

Toward the later half of budget talks, the focus became directed toward bringing down the budget after criticism it was too high, something member Julie Best suggested getting ahead of during development. 

“Could we have given more direction like that ahead of time or should we have?” Best asked. “I’m not saying what the right answer is, but doing that is kind of giving ‘Here’s the number you have to hit.’”

She also brought up the back and forth over potentially programmatic changes that were discussed during budget talks, including potentially reorganizing departments or looking for more efficient ways to operate the schools.

“I would love to find ways to do that ahead of time,” she said. “If it turns up savings come budget time, that would be great to understand where those savings came from. But I don’t want to let the budget drive the process.”

Equity — particularly in athletics — became a point of interest throughout budget discussions. Though it was not addressed in the current budget cycle, members of the board suggested the issue could use more discussion going forward. 

“Once we’ve identified things in the budget cycle that we didn’t handle, we need to make sure they actually get identified so that they end up on an agenda in a timely manner,” Vice Chair Jill McCammon said.

The Board of Education’s finance committee is expected to discuss any potential changes to the budget process at a later date.