Darien school board rejects Open Choice again, meaning no Norwalk kindergartners for 2023-24

DARIEN — Though the budget cycle has just begun, one measure that dominated last year's discussions will be noticeably absent after Darien's Board of Education unanimously rejected implementing Open Choice in the next school year.

Introduced last year, the Open Choice program would have welcomed up to 16 kindergartners from Norwalk into the Darien school district. Applicants to the program are often from underserved racial and economic backgrounds, according to state officials.

Despite the strong support from Superintendent Alan Addley, the board ultimately voted against the program in February.

Addley asked the board to revisit Open Choice during its Nov. 11 meeting, which marked the beginning of budget discussions for the 2023-24 school year.

“The last discussion we had was at the budget process last year, where there was the opportunity to discuss the program and also potentially look at it in a different year,” Addley said. “I think it's good for our kids, and also helps some of the other children.”

While last February, the Board of Education vote was contentious — splitting  5-4, mostly along party lines — this year was not the case. 

Every board member went out of their way to speak against including Open Choice in the budget, even those who previously voted in favor of the program in February.

Member John Sini criticized the superintendent for not bringing Open Choice forward during earlier board meetings, particularly a program that “swamped” traditional budget discussions last year.

“At best, I see this evening's unilateral move to prioritize Open Choice as greatly misaligned against the budget priorities the chair has consistently laid out since this summer’s retreat, and at worst, a case of willful dissonance by our superintendent with this board,” Sini said.

Sini later proposed amending the agenda to take immediate action on Open Choice, leading to the program’s rejection. 

Chairman David Dineen previously ended the February vote with the possibility of voting on it in the future. However, this time he voted against the measure, citing concern about the lack of resources, particularly around staffing and special education.

"I don't see us having the capacity to execute on that, basically because our capacity needs to be directed toward the priorities we've outlined and that I've spoken to several times," Dineen said. “I don't know how to make it any more clear.”

“We're not voting against the program,” he later said. “We're voting that we don't feel it fits our priorities at this time.”

Member Julie Best, who also previously voted for the measure, said she believed in the program’s benefits and had expected to see it discussed beyond the last vote. However, she said she felt it was too rushed to implement the program in the district next year.

“This is something I would have loved to have started discussing earlier in the process if we were to consider it for this next budget,” she said. “I think the fact that we weren't able to get to it sooner is sort of a testament to why I feel like we maybe don't really have the bandwidth right now to do it the way it deserves to be done.”

Several board members, including Vice Chair Jill McCammon and Tara Wurm, said that a need to focus on student mental health was a key reason not to move forward with the program.

In response to the board members' comments, Addley said he respected the board’s decision and the collaborative process by which school budgets are approved, though he disagreed that the suggestions he put forward were programmatic or dramatic.

“Open Choice we've talked about for probably three years, two and a half years or so,” Addley said. “I have an ethical responsibility and a statutory responsibility to present to the board what I think is good for our kids. That's all I've done.”

When asked whether he hoped to see Open Choice in the 2024-25 school year, Addley said, "I don't know that the board closed the opportunity indefinitely, so if it unveils itself as an opportunity to come up again, we would revisit it."