Darien superintendent unveils $110 million proposed school budget, including Open Choice plan

DARIEN — As budget season kicks off, the school district is eyeing implementation of the state’s Open Choice Program, which would send 16 students from surrounding districts to Darien’s elementary schools.

The discussion around the program came as Superintendent Alan Addley presented his proposed budget for the 2022-23 school year.

“This is one of the aspects in the budget that I’m most excited about,” Addley told school board members during a Saturday budget discussion, adding that enrolling in the statewide program has been discussed for years. “I’ll say this, I think it’s certainly good for the children that are coming in. But I think it’s also good and enriches the experience for our entire community. Honestly, if we can’t do it, I don’t know who can.”

Addley’s proposed budget totals $110,832,569, representing a spending increase of 3.95 percent over this fiscal year. During an earlier meeting with the Board of Education, Addley cited a rise in health and contractual costs as the primary driver of this year’s proposed increase. Personnel and operating costs make up more than 70 percent of the budget.

Along with implementing Open Choice, Addley said the district is also seeking to add a number of new personnel, including a groundskeeper who would maintain the exteriors of all the schools. Several new courses are also on the table, and an outdoor classroom proposed for Middlesex Middle School was also discussed.

Board of Education members discussed the proposed budget — including the Open Choice Program — and heard from campus leaders about potential new programs and personnel at their schools.

Elementary schools

With the exception of Royle, Darien’s other elementary schools would host the 16 children poised to participate in the Open Choice Program beginning in the fall. Those children would likely be bused in from Norwalk.

Community members and some board members in favor of the program said it would bring much-needed diversity of students and experiences to the town, which would benefit Darien students as well as the students coming in from another district.

But some school board members expressed reservations about the timing of the roll-out and questioned the cost per student.

“When I supported the idea of Open Choice, I was looking at a much (more) normal school year. One of the concerns I have is, you know, we’re struggling to meet the needs of our own students right now in this environment,” board member John Sini said, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic. “I support the idea, but I want to start real slow.”

Addley, who said he was firmly in favor of the program, argued that there may not be a better time. The state provides $3,000 per student, he said.

Board member Tara Ochman agreed, saying the town had previously used the same reasoning to prevent adoption of the Open Choice Program years ago.

She pointed to other towns that have adopted the program with success, including Westport.

“This program has existed for decades. It is not new, it is not risky,” Ochman said. “I’m sorry, I feel like all the arguments I’ve seen are the arguments I have seen against it for years. It is never a good time unless you decide it’s just time.”

Schools do not have to participate every year, though Addley said he hoped Darien would be an annual participant in Open Choice.

Middle school

Principal Karolyn Rodriguez said this year’s budget proposal includes a Mandarin language course at Middlesex Middle School, which would begin at the sixth grade level.

In addition, $9,000 is budgeted for a new initiative called “Genius Hour,” an inquiry-based, student-led learning opportunity that would cover research and presentation skills, Rodriguez said. Middlesex students would pursue their own research interests in a semi-structured setting, culminating in a presentation fair, she said.

“I think it’s important to give students kind of a choice in their education,” Rodriguez said. “And this gives them once a month to really pursue a unique and individual interest to them that they get to share with the rest of their peers. It’s honing on specific skills that they need to be successful — not only in school, but in life.”

Another item discussed — but not officially part of the budget — is an outdoor classroom proposed for the middle school. The idea was “bred from COVID,” Rodriguez said, and is meant to encourage students to be in nature as they learn.

The classroom would be in the courtyard outside the library, with stadium-style benches, an outdoor TV and a whiteboard, and a giant shade, Rodriguez said.

“It just gives (students) a new environment, kind of refreshing in the middle of the day,” she told board members. “They can go outside and just kind of have classes out there, work together, collaborate in a different environment.”

While the classroom is not up for consideration in this year’s budget, Addley told school board members that the funds for the project could possibly come through a volunteer group or community organization.

“I thought it was an exciting opportunity ... again, something that comes with the COVID experience,” he said.