DARIEN, CT — A majority of Darien Board of Education members voted against the district participating in an Open Choice program with Norwalk schools, despite impassioned pleas from the superintendent and fellow board members Tuesday night.
During a meeting, board members voted 5–4 against entering into the program for the 2022–2023 school year following previous discussions and debate.
While board chair David Dineen, secretary Sara Parent and board members Julie Best and Tara Ochman all voted in favor of the program, board vice chair Jill McCammon and board members John Sini, David Brown, Dennis Maroney and Tara Wurm voted against it.
Open Choice programs typically allows urban students to attend public schools in nearby suburban towns.
If adopted Tuesday, the program would have allowed up to 16 Norwalk kindergartners to attend elementary schools in Darien this fall, according to the Darien Times.
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Prior to the vote, Superintendent Alan Addley made an impassioned plea to board members in favor of the program and said he firmly believed entering into the program at this time was the right decision for Darien students and the community.
“Our alumni and current students have spoken passionately about the importance of recognizing, increasing and celebrating diversity,” Addley said. “This is our opportunity to show our students that we are serious about supporting their voices, that we’re serious about change and that we’re serious about supporting diversity and the goals of the strategic plan.”
Addley noted administration, staff and students were all watching Tuesday’s meeting.
“They’re watching with hope that our words will match our actions,” Addley said. “This is not an easy decision, and perhaps not even a popular decision, but anything accomplished in life rarely is. Matters relating to finance, space and timing are all legitimate issues, but they have been addressed. Let’s not kick the can down the road. There is nothing that we have heard that should prevent us from moving forward.”
He also thanked the community and board members for thoughtfully reviewing the program, and noted the board prides itself on getting things accomplished when needed.
“Let us be leaders,” Addley said, “and not simply passive followers on such important matters.”
Addley’s comments sparked a rebuttal from board members who did not plan to vote in favor of the program, including Sini.
“I would just like to respond,” Sini said, “I’m not passively watching this, Dr. Addley.”
Sini said he did not think now was the right time to implement the program as Darien schools were, in his opinion, far from normal in light of the ongoing coronavirus crisis.
“I will support [Open Choice] when I have better confidence that we are back to normal,” Sini said, “and I do think we will get there. I don’t subscribe to this ‘new normal.’”
Wurm also took issue with Addley’s comments, citing a need to “work on the mental health of [Darien] students” before entering into this type of program.
“I don’t think that we are sitting back passively,” Wurm said, “and I think we need to be leaders in getting our town back to normal, because I do not believe that we are anywhere near normal.”
At the start of the discussion, Ochman spoke in favor of the program offering Darien students an opportunity for “diverse interactions with students of diverse socioeconomic background.”
Best said the district has goals concerning diversity and inclusion, and the program could be a reasonable way to help move the needle in the right direction. She also noted the board had a responsibility to give the program a try despite timing, which would always be an issue.
“We’re not going back to normal,” Best said. “We’ve all said that, we all know that, it’s going to a different normal, so we can’t wait until we get back to something the we recognize from [before the ongoing coronavirus crisis].”
Ochman said she had previously testified in Hartford against regionalization and made the argument Darien could do it better itself if allowed.
“I think we’re going to have to answer the state if we turn down choice programs,” Ochman said, “because they’re going to say ‘you said you could do it yourself, but now you’re not doing it.’ I do think this is the best way for us to safely wade into a choice and an area that we have maybe not been fully robust in, and have maximum flexibility with how we handle it going forward.”
Countering Best’s point about timing, McCammon said she thought the program could be worthwhile for Darien at another time, but she would like to take a closer look at it first.
“It has the potential to be a revenue generator run the right way, but it also has the potential to have some costs,” McCammon said, “and I’d like to see some better modeling and some other actuals from other districts, but fundamentally where I come down is I don’t think this is the year, and so I won’t be voting for it tonight, but I do look forward to future conversations.”
Parent agreed the board has a responsibility to Darien’s children, but also felt the board has a responsibility to the education of every child in the state and country.
Ochaman said the board needed to be forward-thinking when making their decision.
“We have an obligation by statute to expose our children to diverse teachers and diverse populations,” Ochman said. “We are being presented with a choice program. We told the state we could do it better ourselves, and now we’re saying we don’t know.”
She also questioned why some board members have raised concerns about potential financial issues.
“When we make this vote today,” Ochman said, “we have an administration saying they can handle it, we have teachers saying they can handle it, but for some reason we’re saying ‘they’re all wrong, we know better, you can’t handle it.’ I just think we need to be thoughtful, because there are consequences to actions and when you vote today you really have to understand the importance of your vote and what you’re doing.”
Bringing the discussion to a close, Dineen said he appreciated the debate surrounding the decision but asked everyone to think outside Darien’s borders.
“One thing to think about when we talk about how we’re viewed or the conversations about a white, wealthy town in Fairfield County, Connecticut,” Dineen said, “we also need to think how do we want to change that conversation? How do we want to control it?”
Following the vote, Dineen said the board had listened, learned and will continue to move forward.
“This program may come around again,” Dineen said. “I think there’s a consensus of the board that would like to continue to look at this program and move it forward.”