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Darien BoE members turn down Open Choice; Duff, Norwalk Council members urge them to think again

Darien Superintendent of Schools Alan Addley, left, speaks at Tuesday’s Darien BoE meeting. “We don’t see this as a negative or negative expenditure for the district,” he said. “… I firmly believe the Open Choice program is the right decision for our students and our community, and now is the right time to participate.”

NORWALK, Conn. – The Darien Board of Education is being asked to reconsider its choice to reject Norwalk schoolchildren.

Darien BoE members voted 5-4 Tuesday to not participate in the Open Choice Program, thereby refusing to accept 16 Norwalk kindergartners into Darien’s four elementary schools in September. Opponents cited finances as among their reasons for turning down the opportunity; one Board member said not allowing Open Choice would cost the district $30,000.

State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25), State Sen. Will Haskell (D-26) and State Sen. Pat Billie Miller (D-27) released a statement in response. So did four Norwalk Common Council members.

“Last legislative session we were proud to expand the successful Open Choice program to include Norwalk, opening the door for students to attend public schools in surrounding towns, including Darien,” Duff, Haskell and Miller said. “Open Choice is a win-win, allowing both urban and suburban students to gain exposure to new communities and experiences. Strengthening the understandings of diversity and inclusion among our young people cannot be done with just a mission statement. Diversity and inclusion are lived, not just promised. We call on the Darien Board of Education to reconsider their rejection of the Open Choice Program and do what is best for both Darien and Norwalk students.”

The Council members – Jenn McMurrer (D-District C), Nora Niedzielski-Eichner (D-At Large), Dominique Johnson (D-At Large) and Josh Goldstein (D-At Large) – said they were “deeply disappointed” by the vote. “This voluntary, longstanding program, which has succeeded in districts across the state, would have allowed up to 16 Norwalk kindergarten-age students to attend Darien’s elementary schools next year. The Open Choice program is designed to address enrollment, racial, ethnic, and economic disparities between school districts.”

The State’s website explains that the Open Choice program “allows urban students to attend public schools in nearby suburban towns.  It allows suburban and rural students to attend public schools in a nearby urban center.  Enrollments are offered by school districts on a space-available basis in grades K-12.  Lotteries are used to place students when there are more applications than spaces available.”

A year ago, Duff, Haskell and State Sen. Julie Kushner (D-24) introduced a bill to expand the Open Choice Program to include Danbury and Norwalk and provide funding for it. The State legislature eventually set aside $1.175 million over two years to expand Open Choice.

Weston and Westport, which currently take students from Bridgeport, will begin taking students instead from Norwalk, according to the CT Examiner, which quotes Eric Nyquist, Open Choice coordinator at Cooperative Education Services, as saying that.

Darien Superintendent of Schools Alan Addley supported Open Choice at Tuesday’s Darien BoE meeting, captured on YouTube. The five “no” votes came from Republican BoE members and the four ‘yes’ votes came from three Democratic BoE members and one Republican board member, according to Duff, Haskell and Miller.

The meeting began with more than an hour of commentary from the public, much of it centered on Open Choice.

“If Open Choice was available to kids in New Canaan, or Greenwich, I would still be against Darien adopting Open Choice,” one woman said. “It is not the prudent thing to do right now. Over the last two years, lots of education has been lost and our students’ lives continue to be disrupted, and our kids need to be prioritized at this time. I also don’t believe that Darien meets the criteria for Open Choice.”

She said Haskell presented Open Choice as allowing “suburban school districts with a declining enrollment to voluntarily offer seats to students from overcrowded urban districts.” Darien doesn’t have a declining enrollment, she said.

“Open Choice guarantees bigger class sizes in our elementary schools. Open Choice guarantees resources being taken away from Darien students and being given to Norwalk students,” one man said. “Open Choice guarantees more cost per Darien taxpayers. Open Choice guarantees going against the wishes of approximately 1,000 of your constituents. Open Choice is the wrong choice for Darien.”

A woman identified herself as a Norwalk substitute teacher and said she knows from experience that Norwalk middle school students have “smartboards all the facilities that they need. And I just can’t for the life of me figure out why this program is being floated now, at a time when we are a rapidly growing town.”

“As a realtor in Darien our schools are our number one selling point. Small classes, small town feel. We are not Greenwich, Norwalk or Stamford, nor do we strive to be,” another man said.

In the ensuing Board conversation, BoE member Julie Best quoted Director of Finance and Operations Richard Rudl, who formerly worked for Norwalk Public Schools, as saying enrollment projections show there’s space for Norwalk’s children.

Addley said an analysis showed that accepting 16 Norwalk kindergartners would result “in a positive balance of over $200,000.” Playing the cohort out through middle school would “result in $100,000 to the benefit.”

“Our alumni and current students have spoken passionately about the importance of recognizing increasing and celebrating diversity. This is our opportunity to show our students that we are serious about supporting their voices, that we’re serious about change. … There is no point having a strategic plan if we’re not going to try and support it,” Addley said.

Board member D. Jill McCammon, who voted no, said, “I actually do think that at another time Open Choice could be a worthwhile program for Darien. I do think I’d like to take a closer look; it has the potential to be a revenue generator run the right way. But it also has the potential to have some costs.”

Now is “not the right time to implement a program like this” given the uncertain results of the pandemic, said Board member John R. Sini, who voted no.

Board Chairman David Dineen, a Republican, spoke of the appearance of Darien as “a white wealthy town in Fairfield County” and a need to change the conversation.

Dineen voted in favor of Open Choice.

“We have a lot of good things to talk about in this town. We are doing the right thing on affordable housing, we’re doing the right thing on inclusionary zoning,” he said. “And you add to that, you know, ‘we’re going to participate in a program like this,’ and the state starts saying all right, ‘we’ll start pointing our fingers elsewhere because Darien is figuring out to do it in a small way and cautiously and methodically.’”

On Thursday, Duff, Haskell and Miller said:

“According to the U.S. Census report, 91% of the population in Darien is white, 0.9% is Black or African American, 5.6% of the population is Asian, 0.1% is Native Hawaiian, 4.1% is Hispanic or Latino, and 2.1% is two or more races. The Open Choice program helps to diversify the classrooms which leads to better education outcomes for students. Young children benefit from different perspectives and a variety of backgrounds in the classroom. Without a program such as Open Choice, young children lose out on opportunities that make for a successful future.”

 

The Norwalk Council members said:

“This vote occurred despite clear evidence that the program had every reason to be successful and beneficial to both Norwalk and Darien students. As Norwalk residents, we are proud of the diversity in our schools. We believe it benefits all students to attend classes with children from many different backgrounds. With most of our schools near capacity, however, we would also welcome the opportunity for our students to fill available spaces in Darien.

“We strongly encourage the Darien Board of Education to reexamine its decision for the benefit of its students and ours.”

“Norwalk Public Schools remains committed to providing an excellent and equitable education so that all students are prepared for all aspects of life in an ever-changing and diverse world,” Norwalk Board of Education Chairman Colin Hosten said Friday. “The Open Choice program is designed to be mutually successful and beneficial to participating districts, but if folks in Darien are worried about their class sizes or their ability to navigate COVID safely, we would be happy to welcome some of their students here in Norwalk.”

Updated, 2:17 p.m.: More information.

18 comments

M Murray February 4, 2022 at 6:20 am

“The State legislature eventually set aside $1.175 million over two years to expand Open Choice”. Just curious, what happens after two years? If the grant isn’t refunded, do the children go back to Norwalk? Will Darien be expected to pay for the next 11 years? How much does Darien pay per year to educate each student, including athletics etc?

George February 4, 2022 at 6:49 am

Darien does take in students from other areas. Again, A BETTER CHANCE aka ABC provides disadvantage students from other areas, provides housing and supplies to succeed. They live in a house provided by ABC and the students learn how to maintain a clean working home.

http://abcdarien.org/

In fact ABC has locations in many other surrounding towns.

The ABC students are well received by Darien students and excel to higher positions in Student Government including Class President.

This attempt to force Darien into what is clearly the town’s choice is another clear sign that Bob Duff and company are trying to force a regional approach of government and schooling.

That is clearly the signal along with forcing an unwanted or unnecessary new Norwalk High School with offering students from other cities the opportunity to attend NHS.

Money does not fix schools. That has been proven many times over. Parents or in ABC’s case mentors and board members who guide their children fix schools. Just look at private schools, parents are invested in making sure their children learn real life subject matter. Not some woke political b.s.

For four Democratic members of the Norwalk Common Council trying to tell a Republican based Darien what they should do is a joke. Fix the Norwalk Schools first.

Why not focus on Charter schools?

Oh, that’s right. The teachers unions run the schools not the parents and they don’t like Charter Schools were students excel. See, Democrats want you to think they are helping while not actually fixing anything and often times making it worse.

Where would Duff and company be without that union support? Hopefully not South Carolina or Florida.

BOB GIOLITTO February 4, 2022 at 7:02 am

Those on the Darien BOE and Darien citizens who voted “no” cite the costs and economic burdens of Open Choice. As was pointed out by the Darien BOE president himself, the program would generate additional revenue for Darien so the wealthy white folk can hold onto their millions. Question: Is the real reason for the oppostion: “We don’t want 16 of ‘them’ in our cocoon?” Those five year olds sure can be scary.

Mitch Adis February 4, 2022 at 7:14 am

Lookie here! Predominantly white Darien voted against allowing under privileged students into their great schools. I guess the same people who believe Black Lives Matter, don’t believe in equality in education. Also, the same people who preach diversity are fine with it as long as it’s not in their town. Darien should be ashamed.

DryAsABone February 4, 2022 at 7:35 am

It is never the “right time” for change. Want to see how Darien deals with progress? Check to see who is pulled over by the police in that ugly little town.
Sheesh!
Decades ago I shopped for a home and looked briefly in Darien. It was creepy then and it is even more creepy now. Best move I never made!

John O'Neill February 4, 2022 at 9:25 am

Some amusing thoughts as I read the above:
1) 16 kids from Norwalk will help diversify Darien School System? You’ll be adding 16 kids to a pool of 4,737 and you’re creating diversity ?? If you want diversity integrate the schools and truly create diversity. This program is an expensive program to help a select few kids and make a few politicians feel good about their wokeness. But hey, money grows on trees right…
2) It wasn’t too long ago every politician in Norwalk bragged about our #1 status in the state (Again, this was nuance as they forgot to mention the competition in our division). Why would students choose to leave ??
3) Mr. Addley’s comments crack me up — Hey Al – What school district did you send your kids to?
4) I believe in ACTUAL OPEN CHOICE – That is any parent should be able to send their child to any school in NORWALK. That will never happen. Why?
Because the reality of protecting horrible administrators comes before an education for our children.
5) The real answer is a curriculum that works. Currently, Norwalk doesn’t have one.
6) Norwalkers should also keep in mind the lack of support from Hartford for immigrants — There are many many less “diverse” districts getting a heckuva lot more money. West Hartford comes to mind — Maybe Duff, Haskell and Miller should work on that…

Note to elected officials: Stop feeding us this BS and do something, anything that actually works for our kids. ALL 11,000 NOT 16.

Lindsay February 4, 2022 at 9:57 am

While the stated objective of Open Choice is plausible, the real reason, again, is at the expense of our kids.

“Addley said an analysis showed that accepting 16 Norwalk kindergartners would result in a positive balance of over $200,000.” To that end, does anyone find it strange they are referring to Norwalk students as some sort of commodity to be exchanged? This statement alone kills their argument of diversifying classrooms as the sole reason for the program.

What we should be worrying about is keeping students in OUR classrooms here in Norwalk. With all the hard work Estrella and her cabinet have gone through to exercise diversity, equity, and inclusivity, it only makes sense to keep our students in district.

How about Darien sends 16 of their kindergartners over to us? We’ll gain the $200,000 and those students will get a real lesson in diversity, equity, and inclusivity. Duff, why hasn’t this been looked at through that lens?

Stuart Garrelick February 4, 2022 at 10:04 am

Oh my. Darien doesn’t want Norwalk students in their schools, not even 16 for the year or 4 in each elementary school. What else is new? In our current political reality the number of towns who espouse similar views re affordable housing, open school choice, etc. absolutely prevent any significant changes. My answer, which I tried to sell to Lisa Brinton, Ind. candidate for city council at large, is a NAMBY (Not In My Back Yard) tax. If towns want to maintain their economic, cultural, ethnic and racial homogeneity we can’t stop them but let’s see if we can make them pay for that privilege. If cities like Norwalk are to house and provide services for their work force let them pay for it or do their own yard work, refuse collection, police and fire protection, etc. Not an ideal solution but realistic and practical.
PS-Norwa;k”s % affordable housing is 13.5%, Darien’s is 3.56%.

Admiral February 4, 2022 at 1:24 pm

I don’t blame the folks in Darien one bit for not buying into this Open Choice stuff. These Darien residents pay extraordinary home prices in order for their children to attend some of the top-rated schools in the COUNTRY.
You want to go to Darien or New Canaan schools? Then go LIVE THERE!
And it’s insulting to Norwalk that these “equity” people like Duff think that Norwalk students need to be bussed out to excellent school systems like Darien to have a better learning experience. Basically, Duff and bis buddies are admitting that Norwalk’s school system is inferior and that they don’t offer the same quality of education as Norwalk.
Do they actually think ANY family in Darien or New Canaan would attend Norwalk schools while they can attend two of the top school systems in the country? Sure, let’s play $2.3 million for a house in Darien, but send our kids to Norwalk High, where kids are getting into fistfights every day and the teachers spend more time on discipline than they do teaching.
Norwalk used to be a good school system (obviously, not as good as our wealthy neighbors, but good enough)
This would be akin to CBS giving ABC “60 Minutes,” and ABC giving CBS “Cop Rock.”

Piberman February 4, 2022 at 6:26 pm

Why aren’t Norwalk’s Common Council members and Sen Duff focusing their collective attention on why Norwalk public school students consistently fail to meet CT Edu Dept standards ? Does our BOE have a committee to improve student performance ? Making headway ?

JustaTaxpayer February 4, 2022 at 7:02 pm

What’s sad in all of this is how black children who are citizens get left behind. We embrace open borders and sanctuary cities and then forget the impact on our neighbors.

Hmmm February 4, 2022 at 9:53 pm

New England towns and cities generally prefer local control, local control, local control even when proven cost-effective alternatives involve inter district cooperation. ABC programs, however worthwhile, are not the same as open choice. Wonder if Darien Library and/or other Darien book clubs have read “Caste” by Isabel Wilkerson? Easy to be an intellectual non-racist. The beat goes on….no surprises here.

steve February 6, 2022 at 6:59 am

Stuart Garrelick and Hmm great points. Darien wants the benefits of having the Norwalk workforce next to it but doesn’t want to shoulder any of the burden. Moreover, ABC is a great program that provides housing for 6 HS girls who have conditional admission to DHS- if they fail to toe the line- they’re gone. Many of the ABC students who’ve since graduated from DHS can recount a difficult co-existence at the school. As John O’Neil points out 16 students from Norwalk is not going to change the diversity of Darien but it was going to be a mutually beneficial arrangement for a Norwalk system that is bulging at the seems and a Darien system that has room. There has been some change in Darien over the past 25 years but virtually no one who moves to Darien is interested in diversity and most in Darien want to keep whatever perceived advantages they have to themselves As for Norwalk, loads of people with limited or no experience with the school system here belittle it. Our family’s experience over the past 10 years has been fantastic and our kids have thrived. We have the benefit of a good education and diversity! While test scores should matter it’s tough to compare one system where literally 100-200 to the students included in the testing come in to the HS every year who speak no English and have disrupted educations (many enter HS with <5th grade educations), with students in a district who’s parents spend an extra $5,000-20,000 a year on SAT course, tutors and therapist who “find” a need for extra time to give them another edge. Norwalk doesn’t “need” to send 16 students to Darien- but Darien’s unwillingness to accept them under these circumstances is more than telling of the problems that exist there.

s February 7, 2022 at 10:29 am

We don’t need to send Norwalk kids to Darien. Instead, put that money in Norwalk schools and improve them so that Norwalk kids DON”T need to go to Darien. So ridiculous wasting money on something that WONT make an impact on larger society.

Hmmm February 7, 2022 at 10:34 pm

Elite/competitive college admissions folks were among the most powerful and persuasive voices in early Sheff v O’Neill program development days. Maybe bring them back to help Darien parents realize they will in fact give their children a competitive edge by experiencing more diversity.

Tysen Canevari February 7, 2022 at 11:23 pm

@Admiral. Great point. The people that pay to move to Darien New Canaan and Westport go there to get away from Norwalk. Harry makes me laugh as he advertises us a sanctuary city but wonders why our schools struggle here. The lack of english speaking students simply kills the learning curve here. Do you think they have these problems in the surrounding towns? Do you think they have to pay to feed the students breakfast, lunch, and dinner at those schools? Doubt it! Be realistic! How many friends do we know that moved out of town so that their children didnt have to go to school here. DO you think they want to see the bus from Norwalk pull up? Doubt it! Talk about diversity and everything else you can think of. Either way, they pay the freight to have the best schools in the U.S. so why do they need to share with our poorly run town and board of education.

Niz February 9, 2022 at 2:50 am

Protesting at Darien BOE and they are all white.
Can’t even get parents of diverse kids to support it.
IJS

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