At their first in-person meeting of the academic year on Thursday, September 2, New Fairfield’s Board of Education learned more about the Open Choice program. Dr. Charles Dumais, Executive Director of Cooperative Educational Services, explained that the program is essentially “designed to reduce racial, ethnic, and economic disparity” while increasing the diversity in the schools that receive new students from neighboring districts. If the district joins the voluntary program, New Fairfield would be receiving students from Danbury.
Dumais is hoping to find out whether the district plans to participate before January and, if so, what number of students the district will accept. BOE members stressed that an open community forum needs to be held to discuss the matter, and it was agreed that this would be an appropriate agenda item for the first Zoom meeting of the newly revived Communications/Community Outreach Subcommittee on Monday, October 4 at 7:00 p.m. Superintendent Dr. Pat Cosentino said “I think we start small” suggesting maybe two to four students start in Kindergarten next year. “The world is a very diverse place and inclusive and I think it’s always good to have a diverse population,” she said. Ms. Stephanie Strazza asked Dumais for talking points on how best to relay the benefits of the program to the NF community.
Responding to many pre-meeting questions that were submitted by board members, Dumais said that a chosen number of students start in Kindergarten and “those students become your students,” with the assumption that the child would eventually graduate from your district. Though the incentive to join the program this year has been increased, the amount of money that the neighboring district will pay will not meet the incoming district’s per pupil cost. For example, if New Fairfield receives under 2% of its total enrollment in students from Danbury, it would receive $3,000 per student—an incentive for this year brings the number up to $4,000 per student. The funding goes up if a district agrees to take in more students. However, even with the incentives, the gap is wide. In fact, the per pupil cost in New Fairfield is $18,648.69 (for 2019-2020, the latest available figure).
Mr. Greg Flanagan pointed out that with several tight budget years behind and ahead of the district, it might be difficult to justify the cost of this program to the taxpayers, given that the funds don’t add up. Cosentino, however, likened the matter to an airline flying a plane with empty seats or a hotel with empty rooms. Dumais agreed, reasoning that if there is a substantial amount of room in enrollment to accept students, and a small number of students are accepted, theoretically it wouldn’t impact costs.
Dumais explained that any special education costs are the responsibility of the district who is sending the child, though he clarified that the receiving district would need to cover up to their incentive amount. When Ms. Samantha Mannion asked about whether legal fees would be covered if they arose, Dumais said that they would logically be the responsibility of the sending district, “as far as I understand it,” but the question would be best addressed with an attorney.
The program has been in existence since the 1960s, though it was originally called Project Concern, and over 50 districts in the state participate. Dumais said that some districts accept as few as one student per year from a neighboring district. He noted that a district can potentially stop receiving students if enrollment grows, they just need to keep the students who are already in the schools.
BOE members are increasingly vocal about plans to change the policies and structure surrounding public participation at the regular Board of Education meetings. “Changes are definitely coming,” Mannion said, encouraging community members to attend the next Policy Subcommittee meeting on Wednesday, September 22 at 7:00 p.m. At that meeting, they will be continuing to discuss the public comment session and reportedly more closely aligning the policies and rules to those in other districts.
At recent meetings, there have been increasing calls by some board members for the community to bring concerns to subcommittee meetings rather than the regular BOE meeting. They’ve explained that more of the work gets done at these meetings and back-and-forth conversations can be held. These meetings typically have fewer attendees than the regular BOE. There have also been requests to more closely adhere to time limits, questions regarding the appropriateness of comments from students, and the possible need to state residency.
Public comment at the BOE ebbs and flows, depending on hot button issues that may be afoot. While at some meetings there is little to no public comment, at others, such as in the budget season, public comment can extend far beyond the official time limit. Recent public comment sessions have been dominated by frustrated paraprofessionals who are voicing concerns about pay equity in comparison to neighboring districts and benefit contributions within the district, plus questioning the legality of .4 paraprofessionals who work full days, filling the remainder of the hours as substitutes, without benefits. There have also been recent heated public comment sessions on student parking at the high school and on both sides of the issue of mask mandates.
Director of Business and Operations Dr. Richard Sanzo gave a brief update on the two new school buildings, explaining that work is moving forward on both. Regarding parking for high school students, he noted that they have maximized every parking space on the property. Discussions are continuing regarding a shuttle opportunity, but he said that they need to gauge interest from the students, including juniors and sophomores. Though acknowledging that the shuttle is definitely a possibility, and could be very flexible and functional, Cosentino took a harder line on the continued complaints from students and parents, saying “We are under construction, we are building two buildings…the budget is already tight.” She went on to say “Life isn’t fair, if you can’t park, you can take the bus…it’s not something that’s God-given that juniors and sophomores have to have a parking spot at the high school.”
Assistant Superintendent Ms. Julie Luby introduced the new Engagement Coordinator Ms. Joan Spector to the board. Spector, who will be running Q School (or Quarantine School) said “Unfortunately, I’ve gotten to dive in headfirst” with a “bunch of kids already on my list” who were quarantined in the first week of school. She will be maintaining a master list of whoever is on Zoom, will teach the littlest learners, and will help all students and families through the quarantine process. Luby noted that a second Engagement Coordinator will be hired as soon as possible.
The next regular Board of Education meeting will be held remotely on Tuesday, September 21, 7:00 p.m. The BOE plans to conduct the first meeting of each month in person and the second over Zoom.
By Sarah Opdahl