Parents, school board disagree over Darien’s enrollment in state’s Open Choice program

Students are dismissed at the end of the school day at Darien High School in Darien, Conn. Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022.

Students are dismissed at the end of the school day at Darien High School in Darien, Conn. Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

DARIEN — Parents and school board members disagree about the district’s potential enrollment in the Open Choice program that could see 16 students from Norwalk enrolled in Darien schools by next fall.

The program has been supported by key school officials including Darien Superintendent Alan Addley. Advocates of the program argue that it would bring diversity to Darien; the statewide program was started in the late 1990s as a vehicle for reducing racial and economic gaps between urban and suburban school districts. It was just recently expanded to include Norwalk.

The program is application-based. If there are more applicants than open spaces available, a lottery system is used. Currently, the state provides a $3,000 grant to the district for each Open Choice student, according to the program’s website. Transportation expenses for those children would not be Darien’s responsibility.

Norwalk’s application opens Saturday and will run through Feb. 15. The lottery will take place after the number of available slots is determined, with families notified of their status this summer.

Students would fill currently available seats in four of Darien’s five elementary schools. They would not take away seats from Darien students.

At a Board of Education meeting Tuesday, parents spoke both in favor of and against Darien’s enrollment in Open Choice. Many parents who opposed the program used a number of arguments, including the potential cost to Darien taxpayers to cover educating each student. Darien’s current cost per pupil is around $23,000.

Some board members and parents questioned loose eligibility constraints around participation. There is no racial or economic criteria to apply to be in the program.

“Open choice doesn't guarantee diverse enrollment,” parent Jon Dunn said. “Open choice is just as likely to result in seeing luxury SUVs with Rowayton sailboat bumper stickers at our elementary school drop offs.”

Richard Rudl, the district’s director of finance, said that the real cost to the district would encompass educational materials, technology and if accepting a student means the class size becomes too large.

“Any real cost for that student is if you tip a section, because then you're gonna have to build in the salary cost of the (new) teacher and the benefits of the teacher,” Rudl said.

Parents in favor of the program spoke about the benefits of much-needed diversity in schools, referencing recent instances of racism, homophobia and anti-Semitism in Darien.

“Looking at our enrollment projections, we do not appear to be bursting at the seams, so we have room,” said parent Amy Zerbe. “Sixteen might not be the right number, but surely we can accommodate a few open choice students. Our tangible costs will exceed tangible revenues from the state. You need to determine if the intangible benefits are enough to offset the costs. I believe that they are.”

Though members said they have been talking about enrollment in the program for years now, board member John Sini urged the board to consider taking more formal action before committing to the program for the 2022-23 school year.

“It’s critical that this board makes a vote to participate, in my humble opinion,” Sini said.

The school board will take up potential enrollment in the program at a meeting later in January.