70 Darien school staff left in 2021. In response, the district approved a contract raising wages by $6M.

Darien High School, exterior with sign, photographed on Wednesday, May 25, 2022.

Darien High School, exterior with sign, photographed on Wednesday, May 25, 2022.

File / Raga Justin / Hearst Connecticut Media /

DARIEN — After more than 70 teachers left the district in a single year, the Board of Education agreed with the teachers union that something needed to be done.

This week, the school board approved a three-year contract with Darien educators that will cost the district a total of $6 million but gives teachers the biggest increase in salaries in more than a decade and the highest starting salary among districts of comparable size and affluence.

“(The board) acknowledged that we were seen as the gold standard in the state for the level of education we were able to provide throughout the pandemic," Darien Education Association President Barry Palmer said. “I think there was a level of acknowledging that with this contract.”

Under the new contract, salaries across all experience levels will increase at an equal dollar rate, starting at $1,500 per step with several steps removed to boost starting salaries even higher. Salaries are based on teachers' experience and education level.

The pay raise will give Darien the highest-paying starting salary in its District Reference Group and the fifth-highest in Fairfield County, with a minimum salary of $51,646 for the next school year, reaching $54,646 by the third year.

The current base salary for the 2022-23 academic year is $48,115.

The total settlement comes to a cumulative $6,361,006 over the course of three years. According to Palmer, there will be more money going toward teacher salaries in that period than in the past 14 years.

The Board of Education unanimously approved the contract with the DEA for 2023-26 at its Nov. 9 meeting.

The contract comes on the heels of a difficult two years for Darien schools, one of many districts affected by the nationwide teacher shortage. 
Darien Public Schools lost more than 70 certified teachers in the past year, double the 30 to 35 teacher turnover rate of pre-pandemic years. 

The significant loss of teachers was “not uncommon in Fairfield County this year,” DPS Director of Human Services Marjorie Cion said.

Reasons for teachers' departures included higher salaries in other places, wanting careers closer to home, the high expectations many teachers face in Darien that was only exacerbated by the pandemic, and leaving the teaching profession altogether. Of those who left the district, only five teachers retired.

During the pandemic, Palmer said teacher morale was low as teachers fought to meet the district’s high expectations despite the many educational challenges created by hybrid learning and reopening. Many new teachers were unable to see their own families or loved ones for holidays, he said. 

Board Chairman David Dineen said the contract is intended to make Darien Public Schools more competitive at a “challenging time” for recruitment.

“I think we came to the right conclusion at the end of the day in terms of continuing to support our teachers, pay our teachers, provide the right benefits and also continue to be able to recruit people to the district,” Dineen said. 

Even in non-pandemic years, recruiting and retaining teachers can be difficult: Palmer said that because the teachers Darien hires are highly sought-after professionals, competition for their services is high.

While the new salaries appear generous, Palmer said staff is faced with the high cost of living in Fairfield County and the long commutes many teachers have to make.

“There's some very real-world reasons why we have the salary schedule we have,” Palmer said. “If you look at where we were in Fairfield County — on the bottom of our pay schedule — we weren't as competitive as we're going to be now going forward.”

In addition to the increased pay, maternity leave was extended an additional five days on top of the 12 weeks allowed under the Family and Medical Leave Act. 

“The more open the maternity leave policy is in the district, the more attractive that's going to make it for new teachers to want to come and work here, so I'm hoping the board sees that benefit pay off,” Palmer said. “That's an extra week of pay for new families, which every single dollar counts.”

According to Dineen, the board and DEA took a more direct approach to negotiations, starting off by negotiating in the same room rather than through mediation with lawyers.

“It was a good way to start it out,” Dineen said. “We took a different approach, and I think it proved out in terms of the communication, how everyone came prepared. I think it led to the tough conversations through negotiation, coming to the right agreement.”