By Dan Arestia
At a recent Board of Education meeting, Dennis Maroney asked to hear discussion around the possibility of completely cutting freshman and junior varsity athletics. At the meeting Maroney added the caveat that this was not necessarily a move he was in favor of, but that creative solutions might be necessary after hearing feedback from other town boards and committees that the Board of Education budget was too high.
On Wednesday morning, Maroney made it clear that he is in fact in favor of this cut, as he formally recommended cutting the JV and Freshman teams. The recommendations including cuts of $59,770 for transportation, $26,450 for equipment, $23,785 for officials, and $152,510 in stipends, a total dollar amount of $262,515. Asked for the rationale being this cut, Maroney said, “I think our budget is high and, to me, this is extracurricular. It’s not mandatory to have a freshman sport or a jv sport,” adding, “I’ve heard no other district has ever done this. Ridgefield cut five or six jv and freshman sports six years ago. They’re in our DRG. They’re in our conference. This is not something unheard of.”
Almost immediately, other board members voiced concerns and lack of supports for the proposal.
Michael Burke said, “I can’t possibly support those cuts. For the record, I have children that play freshman sports. I anticipate they may play JV in the future. But I promise you that if i didn’t have children on those teams, having been a former freshman and JV athlete, I can’t support those cuts.”
“Those sports add tremendous value to the students, community, and the parents who are involved. While I understand the need to look at athletics, that’s one thing, but based on what’s in front of me now, I feel these cuts are ill advised and just can’t be supported,” he said.
Jill McCammon added, “I’m willing the look at the size of our athletic program and to make some decisions about whether we want a program that’s just grown organically or whether we want to put some parameters around the size based on the combination of need and our financial realities. But I don’t think we’ve taken that look yet. I think a cut like this has tremendous community impact and we don’t have the opportunity to work with the community or support managing it, so I cannot support this cut.”
Board Chairman Tara Ochman also spoke against the cuts, saying, “with all due respect to my fellow board member who I know has put a lot of time into this, this cut seems sensationalistic to me. I don’t see a theory to support it.”
“We’re not looking at all extracurriculars, we’ve seem to have just honed in on sports, and I’m concerned that doing it in this manner without a fully fleshed out conversation directly impacts kids. It directly impacts kids who, as this gets written about in the paper, will stress and will worry, our job is to manage responsibly,” Ochman said.
“I know this a subject area you are interested in, and I absolutely appreciate what Mrs. McCammon said and we will have this discussion; this at this time seems not well thought out. I know you want to look at this, but the timing is poor,” she said.
At this point, Maroney responded to what had been said and suggested there was some inconsistency in the approach to the teams as opposed to the proposed assistant athletic director, saying, “The principal part I struggle with is, you’re saying you’re OK to add an assistant athletic director but you’re not OK to cut this because we haven’t taken a look at it. To me, either they’re the same or they’re different, and that’s what I’m struggling with, because I don’t find consistency there.”
Board member Duke Dineen responded, saying, “I think, to that question, you have to also go by the administration and what the administration is recommending, and they’re managing the program.”
“They’re the professionals that we pay to manage the district and manage the program. Much to the conversation that Principal Somers is not ready to pull the trigger on the guidance counselor, but it seems to me the administration has been building a case to add that position to help manage the broader program,” Dineen said.
“I don’t think it takes away from the work we have to do to look at the program. We could probably make the job even more valuable as we look at the size of it and the management of it. But I think you’re putting the cart before the horse, and you’re sending the wrong message to young people,” Dineen said.
“We haven’t done the homework, yet we’re making a decision or issuing a grade. It makes absolutely no sense and all the conversations about stress and all the political BS back and forth that starts around this stuff, it’s just something we don’t need to have on the discussion table until we do the homework. We shouldn’t be putting that type of pressure or stress on our students, on those people that volunteer hours and hours on end with our sports programs in town. It’s incredibly short sighted,” he said.
Maroney took the chance again to respond here. He suggested that the argument about stress on children was not one he understood, as the pressures of making varsity, JV, or freshman sports was a stressor anyway. He also suggested that it was the job of the board to question and contest the administration’s recommendations. Maroney said, “the stress thing, I’m not sure what that argument is, because the stress is, as well, do you make varsity or not, do you make JV, do you make freshman. I’m not sure what stress that alleviates.”
“And I think we’re trying to find an answer to argue something. I think what’s frustrating to me is people are saying the budget is too high and we need to find places to cut,” Maroney said.
“And people are coming in saying we should cut assistant principals, we should cut the Spanish program, we should cut other things which involve students, and I’m trying to find another way to cut students which is an extra, an added. And Tara, I appreciate your point about all extracurriculars and I do agree that I think we have to look at all that,” Maroney said.
“And maybe this is too soon to do this cut, and maybe there is some sensationalism to it, but it also has to be part of what we as the board have to look at. And Duke, the other part that has always frustrated me is that we rely on the administration to do their job, but the nine people here are the only ones who can correct them or question them. No one else in the country can contest the job they do. So that’s our job, to contest the work that they propose and it’s our job to to question them,” Maroney said.
Christa McNamara weighed in as well. McNamara has long sought a in-depth look and discussion around the way all extracurriculars are funded in Darien, sports and otherwise. The board has committed to taking a very close look at those numbers over the summer, and potentially making philosophical decisions about equity in extracurricular funding. McNamara said, “I want to thank Dennis for continuing the discussion. I’ve been trying to bring this up and I look forward to summer. At this point I can’t support the cut. I appreciate the thought that went into it.”
“I think we need to be cognizant of what our extracurricular activities look like, sports being part of that conversation. I think every child should have that opportunity to compete, so I would never want to see these ever leave our high school. I think its a valid discussion though to think about where the funding is coming from,” McNamara said.
“I do struggle to see freshman sports fully funded and our varsity sports are not. To me that’s a disconnect. As to the comment about being managed and professionals, I respect that, but I do struggle when I get response after response in our athletic department that says, ‘well this is just how we’ve done it,’” she said.
“Recognizing this administration has only been here a couple of years, but history upon history upon history is not actively managing the process. So I look forward to a robust discussion, and history is no longer the response for why we do things,” she said.
Board Vice-Chairman Betsy Hagerty Ross attempted to offer some clarity to McNamara’s comments, “You’re making a misstatement. Freshman sports are less funded, and JV sports. The parents have the same roles and responsibilities for supplying equipment, probably even more at that level so they’re not fully funded.”
This was followed by some cross talk from all board members regarding data that they had received about parent contributions to sports and other fees. Hagerty-Ross continued saying, “One, I’m not going to support the cut. Two, no sports are fully funded by the administration, Freshmen, JV, or varsity. Three, to make a cut at athletics to bring the budget in at under 2% isn’t the place to start.”
“There are many other places that the board needs to dig in to look at in this budget, and we could. We’ve actually gotten distracted by having the administration work on something that most of us, from what i’m hearing, are not going to support,” Hagerty-Ross said.
“There are other places we could look and scrub that wouldn’t affect kids. I think we need to get back to the business of understanding what’s in this book before we throw out work for the superintendent and the administration so that we could come in with a reduction in the budet. Which is our point. The point here is that we are scrubbing every number, we should be scrubbing every number, and we should be understanding where we can come in and make these cuts,” she said.
At this point, Ochman said, “some of what I’m hearing is concerning to me, in terms of recognizing roles as board members. The role of the board is not to hear from outsiders and determine what the budget should be. The role of the board is to make the best educational decisions it can for the school inside of fiscally responsible budgets, and to work with the town committees to understand what that means.”
“So it is incredibly concerning to me to hear, well they told us 2%, how do we get there. That is not our job. It doesn’t mean the other committees are wrong or we are right. It is a process. But to think that outside groups can tell us what the budget is, and therefore we must get to it, is not understanding the job as a state agency,” she said.
“You are locally elected members of a state agency, which has a very clear mission. Wherever we end up on this, and I think it’s an important cut to have on the table for the public meeting, you do need to remember your roles. If there’s confusion upon that, please reach out,” Ochman said.
Maroney said, “On creating work. I find it incredulous that some of us feel that this is work directed to the administration. If we don’t know where $272,000 is being spent and how to divide it up, I find that wrong. I think we should have that granularity to know where this money is being spent. To say that this is work I prescribe to the administration, I find that, to me, an inherent problem with the budget.”
Superintendent Dr. Dan Brenner also pointed out in the meeting that a look at the budget would reveal that uniforms are bought for varsity teams, but not freshman or JV teams. Coaching staffs are also much smaller, and clearly freshman and JV teams see nowhere near the same level of support that varsity teams do. Board Member Deb Ritchie also said that, being a parent of an athlete herself, the data on the spreadsheet to which other board members referred did not offer a complete picture of parent contributions and support for athletics.
The full meeting can be viewed on the Darien Public Schools website, with the discussion around athletics beginning around 56 minutes in. Board members also discussed potential reductions to parts of the budget such as substitute teachers, clubs and councils, and other areas.
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