Town councilman: Participating in Open Choice is ‘beyond crazy’
NEW CANAAN — The Town Council voiced their opinions on Wednesday on whether children from Norwalk should attend the local school district as part of the Open Choice program.
Town Councilman Tom Butterworth explained that the Board of Education had talked about the program earlier in the week since the state expanded it for the neighboring city for the 2022-23 school year.
It was previously considered unrealistic for New Canaan to participate in Open Choice — which has been operating since 1997 in Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford — because the length of the bus rides would have been prohibitive.
Town Council members seemed split. Some councilmen worried over a possible lack of funding and future enrollment since, under Open Choice, the district must agree to educate the children from kindergarten through their high school graduation.
“There is one reason and one reason only why you do this, and it is because you feel that having a diverse population is more valuable to your children,” Butterworth said. “If you don’t believe that, why in the world would you step into this?”
Town Council members expressed strong feelings, even though they are not able to vote against the program. Since the Board of Education passes the district budget, Town Council only has the power to vote on the bottom line, not individual line items. In order for the Town Council to oppose Open Choice, if it were adopted into a future Board of Education budget, the council would have to oppose the entire budget.
Councilman Steve Karl voiced concern that the district does not accurately predict enrollment and questioned how would it know if there would be room for those students in the future. He said he does not wish to see overcrowded schools, similar to what the town has experienced in the past.
“Predicting here that we are going to be able to put extra students into our school system for thirteen years is beyond crazy,” Karl said, There is “no logical reason you would do that.”
Others Town Council members supported the idea.
“I applaud our Board of
Education for studying this — way to go Board of Education,” Chairman John Engel said. “We are going to do the right thing, right here in New Canaan.”
“I never even heard of this until tonight,” Councilman Mike Mauro said. “The goals are certainly laudable, there is no question about it.”
Cristina Ross raised concern about funding for special education, fearing those costs would be transferred to this district.
“We could get surprised by a statistically abnormal number of special education students,” Engel said. “But you know somebody has to educate those kids.”
The Open Choice program calls for the sending district to pay for special education costs, but there are some caveats.
At the school board meeting Monday, member Dionna Carlson raised concerns in the wording of the reimbursement criteria for special education after a presentation on Open Choice by the Executive Director of Cooperative Educational Services Charles Dumais.
The program says “the sending district is responsible for the difference between the reasonable cost of special education and the Open Choice grant amount,” Carlson said. “I don’t know how ‘reasonable’ is calculated.”
“I think we all need to get a better handle on that language and what our potential exposure is in this area,” Carlson said.
Dumais agreed that he would like a better definition of “reasonable.” However, the sending and receiving district are both participants in the IEP, or Individual Education Plans, where the issue of reasonableness is determined.
The state’s role is to give
a town incentives for the district to participate in the program, but “all the incentives do not add up to the per pupil expenditure,” Dumais said.
Once the district takes on a student, “they are treated like a resident of New Canaan,” which means the student can not be sent back, must be allowed to return after a suspension and participate in sports,” Dumais said.
Carlson raised concerns on if the program is really effective for the students, saying she reviewed the data about student performance and she did not think it appeared to be. “My first priority is improving the academic lives of those kids.”
After questions about what would happen if the state discontinued the program, Dumais said it has “existed for half a century” and it “has been funded throughout.”
The decision should be made by January, Dumais said.