Darien elementary schools nearing full capacity

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As new housing developments continue to pop up around town, it’s quite likely that Darien Schools will reach its maximum capacity by 2014, according to Dr. Stephen Falcone, schools superintendent.

If this happens, the preschool early learning program, or ELP, will have to be held at another location. This program is optional and not mandated by the state, but the schools have iterated the importance of the program and how it helps kids get a head start on public education.

“We can’t compromise ELP or other school programs,” Falcone said at an early November Board of Ed meeting.

When the schools presented this information to the Board of Finance Tuesday, the town’s financiers expressed concern about the schools’ planning techniques and what options were available to help alleviate school congestion.

Board member Jon Zagrodzky said he feels like the town is “flying blind” in its approach to enrollment.

“I would be very interested in seeing how your thinking evolved,” Zagrodzky said, referring to planning for capital expenditures needed to create more space for learning. Betsy Hagerty-Ross, Board of Ed chairman, said there are so many variables that determining a timeline can be difficult.

Some schools face more overcrowding than others. The ELP program is housed at Tokeneke and Hindley, and Tokeneke is the only Darien elementary school without a portable classroom. There is room for as many as 106 more families once The Heights at Darien (formerly Allen-O’Neil) opens, and most of these kids would go to Royle. The Kensett subdivision, formerly the Procaccini property, has the potential to bring another 62 families, with theses children going to Ox Ridge.

While this development is age-targeted for older homeowners, it doesn’t preclude young families from buying. Mao said some of the floor plas are designed with a children’s bedroom.

“We don’t know who will occupy those” new developments, Falcone told the Board of Finance. “People from the city, people who downsize and move in. We don’t know where they’re all going to be.”

Falcone said the potential for 50 to 70 more kids at Ox Ridge is a real concern. The entire capacity of all Darien elementary schools is already less than 60 students shy of reaching critical mass.

“We don’t know what grades are coming in,” Hagerty-Ross said. “Until we start seeing some sort of influx, it’s a little hard to predict.”

When the topic of redistricting students came up, Hagerty-Ross became visibly frustrated.

“Redistricting is not going to…we need more square footage,” she said. Chairman Mao said it should probably be an option on the table.

“Just putting it out there because I know you don’t want to mention it, I mean publicly,” Mao said.

Falcone said the district is already looking at options for new space.

“If schools max out, where can we accommodate ELP,” Falcone said. “We need to look at all options in the community — commercial space, public space, new space.”

Mao suggested the meeting room at 35 Leroy could be used as an ELP classroom, but Falcone noted there are certain specifications required for a classroom, such as small bathrooms, a ground floor space and a playground.

Enrollment concerns exploded onto the scene this year, when, after last year’s enrollment decline, the first in two decades, enrollment actually increased so much that the schools had to hire five more teachers to meet the need. They had budgeted for 2.5 teachers, and had to take money from overages in staffing accounts; money that became available because of staff turnover, Falcone said.

“I hope you didn’t take money from the library again,” Mao said, referring to the district’s methods used last year when it went over budget.

“I think it’s pretty clear of how we’ve done that,” Falcone responded. “Most of it was reallocation of staffing and staffing dollars… That’s pretty transparent in our transfers.”

In an interview Wednesday, Jayme Stevenson, first selectman, said her hope was that the schools would examine additions, renovations and portables at current facilities before considering occupying additional space.

“The Board of Ed is very well-equipped to make the decisions they need to make,” Stevenson told The Times. “My hope would be they would look very closely, if they need to use space, at our current facilities.”

Stevenson noted enrollment has been traditionally cyclical, and “any new building decisions need to be balanced against the need for us to preserve open space,” as per the town’s Plan of Conservation & Development.

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