Betsy Hagerty-Ross answers for 4,000 Darien children as a school board member and has “seen everything” over the last six years.
Before her role as a board chairman, Ross had a 17-year finance career. As a mother, her job became “to find out what the education was that they were going to have in Darien,” she said. Ross has also held an array of Parent Teacher Organization roles including room mom, treasurer at Royle and Council of Darien School Parents budget coordinator. Ross also served on the 35 Leroy Feasibility Study and is now on the building committee.
It is not just her prior experience that is valuable but she sees the relationships she has developed with her co-members, the district’s administration, members of the RTM, Board of Finance and selectmen as vital.
“The connections and information that I have gleaned from those conversations put me in an incredibly unique position,” she said. Ross will not have to overcome what she calls the steep learning curve as a new member.
After all this time, Ross said that she comes to every discussion with a “fresh perspective” because that it what the job requires. The board has seen many complicated and controversial problems in the past but every issue always has multiple perspectives. “It would be a disservice to my constituents,” she said, “to walk in and have already made my mind up without having heard from the administration or my board members.”
The board has also ushered in new programs, sports teams and curriculum. It’s what makes Darien a “full-service community,” Ross said. “Every child should find something in Darien that they’re interested in and that they can do.” It’s something she believes the community demands, both parents of children and other residents who own real estate and take pride in the town.
Ross says that implementing mandates from the state without receiving funding is the most difficult task. The schools must figure out how to integrate something like common core standards so that it has a positive effect on students and is ultimately paid for.
“At some point in time, the town of Darien is going to be solely responsible for financing the school district,” Ross said, “because the state isn’t going to be there backing us up.”
This should not affect student services, Ross emphasized, so the schools should continue to hire the best teachers, invest in technology and buy textbooks. Darien’s teachers inspire students and work with each other on issues. “If reductions need to be made, we have to find better ways to do things that are non-student related,” she said. Ross noted some good ways would be to find a less expensive deal for oil, change the health insurance and get a better school bus contract.
Ross has been part of many discussions on special education and expects them to continue because of the growing demand for services. She believes that students requiring extra help are regular education students first. Integrating all types of education into one program requires a team effort, and that is what the district has decided on. Regular education teachers together with specialists should be able to support the student, she said. On outplacement, Ross said that the board has no place in it because it is between parents and the administration who develop individual plans.
“Currently we’re looking at our procedures and practices for efficient and effective programming,” she said. “The end goal is independence and achievement for those students.”
During budget season, Ross does not shy away from extra work, like negotiating for teacher contracts or calculating costs. She has been on the negotiaton committee for two years and has the skills to negotiate and defend both sides with the facts, she said. Her financial experience comes in handy then. “I can run the models,” she said, “I’ve put the models together.”
John Boulton, former board chairman, used to call Ross and Heather Shea the “Truth Squad,” Ross explained, “because we get to the truth behind the numbers.”
The job requires acting as a “funnel” for information between the administration and parents. Ross acknowledged that communication was not always clear in the past but she worked with board members to fix that problem. Board members do not advocate on behalf of an individual family, rather for concerns that affect many students. “ Most of our job is redirecting the parent, back to the place that they’re going to get their questions answered.”
Increasing enrollment was a concern this year, though Ross called the population spike “an anomaly.” The board continuously monitors enrollment and things that can affact it like construction projects, she said. “It is the key to most of our budgeting so we’re constantly monitoring it.” This year Ross said that the board will look at possible redistricting and see which schools are near capacity. Her decision, as with the rest of the board, will rely on projections from Richard Huot, finance director.
On permanent field lights at Darien High School, Ross said that there is nothing the board can do about the situation. When they heard the proposal at the start of her first term, the board found funding and brought it to the town. The Planning and Zoning commission turned it down. “The issue is that it’s not on the ageanda,” she said, “and the ultimate decision making lies with planning & zoning.” Ross added that at this point, the board would have to find funding.
The board is also aware of Title IX but Ross said that it depends on “the split between boys and girls.” The decision is up to the town to fix a complaint but sometimes it might not be able to, like the situation with the swim team at the YMCA.
“Do we believe we have fairness in our sports? Yes,” Ross said. “Eighty-five percent of our kids are on a team…You don’t know where a Title IX issue is going to come from.”
“It’s like this big old barge that’s moving down,” Ross said of district issues, “and to get that to turn, it takes a long time, and we work on this for a really long time.”
Her time on the board has been an education in itself because she is contantly learning, Ross said. A board member might know everything but should “be able to make sure that you have enough understanding of it to ask the right questions,” she said. When an issue comes up, Ross said that she will ask every question that a parent would want to ask the administration because it’s her job.
“I finally hit my stride, Ross said, “I had to grow into this.”
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