Ask Katie Stein what sets her apart as a Board of Education candidate and she’ll say it’s her experience as a co-chairman and vice chairman of an elementary school PTO. She’s currently co-chairing at Tokeneke School’s parent teacher organization, and as a mother of three young children — two at Tokeneke and one at Middlesex Middle School — she stays more than busy.
“Through my volunteer work as a PTO co-chair, and my contributions in the classroom, I have become passionate about the quality of education in our schools,” Stein told The Darien Times. “I have attended Board of Education meetings as a representative of my school for three years now and I believe I can make a meaningful contribution as a member of the board. Running for the Board of Education is a logical next step for me to serve our community.”
Stein is one of four people seeking three open seats for the Darien Board of Education this November. Incumbents and Republicans Betsy Hagerty-Ross and Sarah Schneider-Zuro face Democratic challengers Stein and Patty McCormick in the first Board of Ed race in nearly 20 years.
The Darien Town Committee approached Stein about running for one of the open seats, being left by longtime board member George Reilly who decided not to seek re-election this year. After much deliberation and endorsements from many in the community, Stein decided to throw her hat in the ring.
“One of the most important skill sets I possess is my ability to listen, consider and develop an action plan,” Stein said. “As a
non-profit lawyer I learned how to be a good negotiator and have developed the skills to work with people on both sides of an issue.
As a PTO co-chair, I have learned precisely how important communication is between our parents, teachers and administrators.”
As a newcomer, Stein said she brings a “fresh new perspective” to the table, something that would benefit the board’s decision making.
“The biggest challenge we face as a district is continuing to provide the high level of educational excellence that Darien residents have come to expect and our students deserve, but doing so in a fiscally prudent manner,” Stein said.
“We need to continue to examine where we want to be academically and identify changes in the educational arena that will benefit our students. Unfortunately, it is often harder to move a high-performing district like ours to the next level than to move an under-performing district forward.”
On some of the more controversial school issues, such as permanent field lights at the high school and the new foreign language program,
Stein said she supported both but noted she didn’t have an agenda for seeking a board seat.
“I think lights would be great, personally,” Stein said, adding that she came to that conclusion by examining the facts around issue.
“I’m a facts person,” she said.
The Boston native noted she also supports the new Spanish language program in the elementary schools, but she said she’d like “to see a more intensive version” in the future.
In five years, the curriculum will be fully developed as kindergartners will have taken Spanish each year, and by fifth grade
there should some level of proficiency, Stein said. At that time, another look at intensifying the program could be prudent.
Darien Schools have also been the subject of several Title IX violations, the federal statute that requires equality among boys and girls sports. Stein said this statute “is always a concern, and something we cannot ignore.”
“I think the board has done an excellent job of providing varied athletic programs to all students at [Darien High School] as evidenced by the strong student participation levels,” Stein said. “From what I understand, whenever there has been a Title IX complaint the administration and board have responsibly addressed any required remediation within their abilities.”
There is also concern about enrollment reaching its full capacity soon, especially with new housing developments such as The Heights (formerly Allen-O’Neill) and Kensett (the Procaccini property), which are brining dozens of new homes to town. This year enrollment exceeded projections by 54 students, which caused the district to hire five additional teachers and also raised more concerns about capacity.
Last year, enrollment fell for the first time in 23 years, further complicating the enrollment projection process.
“Enrollment, maintenance of class size policies and guidelines will continue to be an on-going issue,” Stein said. “Darien is an attractive town for families with school-aged children and we need to ensure we have the resources in place to adequately fund any increases in enrollment.”
“This is a significant concern because a large portion of the budget is driven by the number of sections in the elementary schools and the number of students in a class at the high school and middle school,” Stein continued. “Given the number of new housing developments in town, the Board will need to incorporate these into their projected enrollment.”
When it comes to the increasing cost of special education in town, Stein treads lightly. She said the new director, Deirdre Osypuk, has “impressed” her, and that examining outplacements, or students who get sent to other schools on public money because the district doesn’t have the resources to teach that student in-district.
“My primary concern is that each and every student — not only special ed students — in Darien gets the appropriate education that meets his or her needs,” Stein said.
While Stein emphasized the excellence in Darien schools, she said she would like to see some improvement with its communication to the community.
“Specifically, continuing to create communication channels to foster parental and community engagement in the Darien educational system,”
Stein said. “Improving the communication within our district will foster a productive dialogue to further identify what we do well in the classroom and what needs improvement. The current administration has made progress in this area and I am excited for it to continue to expand.”
Stein has lived in town for 10 years. She received a law degree from Fordham University Law School, where she was a Public Interest Scholar, and her bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College. She worked as a paralegal at Skadden, Arps and for the Manhattan District Attorney’s office before attending law school.
After graduation, Stein worked as a staff attorney for Sanctuary for Families Legal Center, the largest U.S. provider of legal services for victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking. After Sanctuary, Stein has volunteered in a variety of Darien organizations. She led the YWCA Gala in 2003 and 2004 and ran the Baby Basics program from 2003-05. Stein also joined the boards of both Sanctuary for Families and the Darien YMCA.
“Having three young children in our schools, I can say that the quality of our teachers and administrators is exceptional,” Stein said. “I am continually amazed by the dedication of our teachers and how invested they are in our children.”