Darien school board rejects CT Open Choice program, meaning no Norwalk students next year

Darien High School

Darien High School

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

DARIEN — The district will not receive students from Norwalk this fall after the Board of Education voted 5-4 against adopting the Open Choice program for the 2022-23 school year.

The decision, which came during a Feb. 1 budget hearing, split mostly down party lines. It also comes after Danbury decided to hold off on implementing its program for another year.

Board members David Brown, John Sini, Dennis Maroney, Tara Wurm and vice chair Jill McCammon — all elected as Republicans — voted no during the Feb. 1 meeting. One Republican, board chair David Dineen, voted for the program, joining Democrat board members Julie Best, Tara Ochman and Sara Parent.

While some board members have pushed against Open Choice in recent budget meetings, top school officials including Superintendent Alan Addley have steadily backed the program. On Tuesday, Addley made a last impassioned plea to the board before it took a vote, calling Open Choice essential.

“This is our opportunity to show our students we are serious about supporting their voices, that we're serious about change and that we're serious about supporting diversity,” Addley said. “This evening, I ask the board passionately to make a courageous decision to support Darien’s participation in the Open Choice program for the benefit and enrichment of all our Darien students as well as those participating in the program.”

The program would have allowed up to 16 kindergartners from Norwalk to attend Darien elementary schools this fall. Historically, the program attracts applicants from underserved racial and economic backgrounds, program officials have said.

Yet across countless hours of testimony in recent weeks, parents and opponents of Open Choice have echoed the same message: The program is wrong for Darien. Opponents have cited larger class sizes, unknown future enrollment and a purported financial burden for the district, though officials have said the program is actually a revenue-driver because of state grants.

Parents and board members have also said they believed this was the wrong time for Darien to implement the program given the ongoing pandemic and its effects on students.

“I think that we need to be leaders in getting our town back to normal because I do not believe that we are anywhere near normal,” board member Tara Wurm said. “Now we need to work on the mental health of our students. Yes, stewardship — but first to our town.”

But several members balked at the issue of timing. The program has been on the table for around two years now, as board members have said in prior meetings.

“We're not going back to normal. We've all said that, we all know that it's going to be a different normal,” board member Julie Best said. “So we can't wait until we get back to something that we recognize from the before time. I think we have a responsibility to give this a try. I do think the timing is now.”

Board member Tara Ochman and Dineen also pointed out state statutory requirements to increase diversity in enrollment. Ochman questioned what happens if the state starts to believe Darien is not actively choosing programs that could help solve diversity enrollment gaps.

“I made the argument that we could do it better ourselves if you let us,” Ochman said, referencing her time testifying against regionalization before the state legislature. “This is a choice program. I think we're gonna have to answer the state if we turn down choice programs because they're going to say, ‘You said you could do it yourself and now you're not doing it.’”

Dineen said he appreciated the conversation around the program in the past few weeks, but asked community members to think critically about Darien’s perception in the state as a white, wealthy town.

He also sounded the possibility of bringing back consideration of the program next year.

“This program may come around... I think there's a consensus of the board that would like to continue to look at this program and move it forward,” Dineen said.