After receiving several positive updates and more specific financial details from the administration, the Board of Education unanimously voted to take the alternative education program Fitch Academy out of pilot stage, making it a regular program. This was the first year of Fitch Academy, which helps provide a setting for students who have issues consistently getting to school or struggling with the stress of academic life within Darien High School.
The program this year has 12 students, with the plan for that number to a permanent cap of 25 next year. Fitch is currently using spaced rented at the library, and the administration is still in the process of securing a new location for next year and the foreseeable future.
The primary discussion at the Nov. 28 meeting dealt with the financials of the program, as the board needed to make this decision prior to budget season which is rapidly approaching. Superintendent Dr. Dan Brenner gave the board a more detailed look at the financial breakdown of the program. This year, the 2.09 staffing for the program cost $240,669. The rental of the library space cost $24,000, for a total of $264,669.. The program offers cost avoidance however, in the form of three students who would have been outplaced but instead are in district, which saves $193,800. Transportation of those students would have cost $45,342.99, and homebound tutoring would have cost $5,500. The cost avoidance totaled $244,642.99, so the program had a net cost to the town of $20,026.01 for 2017-18.
For the 2018-19 year, Brenner provided more details about how the expansion might have an impact, while still working towards being a net zero. Next year the staff would be comprised on one lead teacher, 2.5 other teachers, and a 0.5 school psychologist. The staffing positions would cost $337,757. The number being used for a new space is $72,000, and there is also $5,000 for computers and equipment, making the total cost of the program next year $414,757.
As for cost avoidance, the number of outplacements that instead remain in district to go to Fitch would rise from three to five, saving $323,000. The cost of transporting those students would have been $75,571.65, along with $5,500 in homebound tutoring, which is all now saved. The total cost avoidance is $404,071.65, making the net for next year $10,685.25.
The board had a number of questions, primarily about the search for the space that will be rented to house the program. Board member Katie Stein asked about the length of the lease that the administration was hoping to sign. Brenner explained that they’ve had a number of conversations,and it depends on how much work the site would need to done to accommodate the program, with the more work being done meaning a longer lease.
“We are attractive tenants. We leave by three, we are there 10 months, have limited traffic, and don’t need much parking,” Brenner said, adding that length of lease really would ultimately depend on the space they found.
“If we find the perfect space, we can come back and ask for a longer lease,” Brenner said, adding the caveat that beyond five years might be a bit more than the administration was comfortable with. The goal is also to come in under the $72,000 laid out in the update, and that was “a top end number” according to Brenner.
Board members Jill McCammon and Christa McNamara each had questions about the day to day within the program and services like a nurse or provided lunch. Brenner explained that those would not be necessary for this program.
“If a student has a serious medical nursing need, they wouldn’t be a good fit for the program. Program is not designed for medically fragile kids,” said Brenner. As for lunch, this year students either brought their own or walked to a nearby location to buy lunch, and that would stay the same. Brenner did say that some of the spaces they have looked at have a small kitchen.
McCammon also said she has heard, though it was not her opinion, that the board is, “making programs for kids who just need to get tougher,” and asked for a response from the administration to that.
“It’s easy to say to just suck it up right up until it’s your own child,” Brenner said.
“These are kids who, for whatever reason, have their own issues and need additional support and need a program like this. They have the opportunity to thrive here. I come from the school that says kids learn from adversity, but that’s not this group. This is not a situation where we are coddling kids. They would either be struggling mightily in DHS or be outplaced,” Brenner added.
Board member Duke Dineen made a case that the board and administration needs to show hard dollars and savings to people when this comes up in budget talks. It can be challenging, as ultimately the coming years are not something that can be concretely projected. Brenner assured the board that the cases of outplacement savings are essentially certain, and that the students in question would definitely be outplaced if not for Fitch. As costs of outplacement are also different from school to school, it becomes increasingly difficult to offer a concrete number in terms of exactly how much will be saved in a given year.
The final matter discussed was the possibility of making the program available to students outside of the Darien as a potential revenue stream for the district. Ultimately, the administration and board decided that this was a conversation for the future. The focus was on growing the program this year to its maximum size, and they did not want to find themselves in a situation where Darien students were waiting for a spot at Fitch because spots had been taken by outside students. “The tuition conversation will not happen this budget cycle. It will become a regular Darien only program first, then when we are feeling comfortable, that’s another discussion,” Brenner said.
“We need to deal with our growing pains. Let’s get numbers. If we start in September and have 17 students and stay constant, that’s where we will be. Could we come back and say we could accommodate more, we could,” he added.