At the Thursday night, March 2, Board of Education (BOE) meeting, Superintendent Kevin Smith brought up the topic of having the Wilton Public School district participate in the state’s Project Open Choice program.
Project Open Choice is a CT State Department of Education inter-district program that enables students to attend public schools outside the community in which they live. As the program’s website describes, urban students participating in the program can attend suburban schools, and rural and suburban students can attend schools in urban centers.
Smith described the purpose of the Open Choice program: “One, reduce racial, ethnic and economic isolation; two, improve academic achievement; and three, to provide a choice of educational programs.”
Wilton previously considered taking part in Open Choice in 2021. At the time, BOE members deferred making a decision to consider adding students from outside the district because they anticipated a higher kindergarten enrollment for the 2022-23 school year, someting which did eventually materialize.
Thursday evening, Smith said he was reintroducing the discussion now as it had been on the BOE’s “to-do agenda to revisit.”
Open Choice Program Elements and Costs
Based on the way the state groups participating districts, Wilton would consider offering seats to students from Norwalk. Once Open Choice students are admitted, they would be allowed to attend until graduation.
In addition to Norwalk, other Fairfield County districts that participate as sending districts include Bridgeport and Danbury; receiving districts include Fairfield, Trumbull, Easton, Redding/Region 9, Westport and Weston. There is reciprocity between districts, so that students in receiving districts would also have the opportunity to attend schools in the sending districts.
The state provides $3,000 per student to districts accepting participants. In addition, the state also increases the Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) grant to participating districts on a per-student basis. Smith estimated that to be an additional $61 per student that the Wilton district would receive based on the anticipated FY 2024 ECS grant of $458,128.
The state provides transportation at no cost to receiving districts. If an Open Choice student required special education services, the sending district would pay the difference between the $3,000 state grant and the cost of the services required to educate that child.
If more students from the sending district wanted to participate than there were available spots, they’d be selected by a lottery.
The program would be administered through the local Regional Education Service Center (RESC). Wilton’s RESC is Cooperative Education Services (CES) in Trumbull.
Smith: Do we see the potential educational benefit? Yes.
Smith he described what he sees as the benefits of participating in Open Choice.
He mentioned Wilton’s historic involvement in an early version of Open Choice called Project Concern that began in 1966. Wilton participated for a number of years “through the 1970s,” according to Smith.
He also pointed to Wilton’s long-standing participation in the A Better Chance program, something Smith said was also an effort to reduce racial, ethnic and economic isolation.
Along those lines, Smith said the first decision the board would need to make was a philosophical one, and whether there was a potential educational benefit for all students.
“I clearly see the potential educational benefit and believe that Wilton has a rich history of educating students from urban environments. Participation in Open Choice would support our goals around the Portrait of a Graduate, specifically the goal in developing the attribute, ‘active, socially sensitive citizens.’ Creating more opportunities for our students to interact and form relationships with individuals with diverse backgrounds and experiences will surely enrich their educational experience,” Smith said.
He continued by referring to the idea that Wilton is a cultural “bubble.”
“I think about the stories we’ve heard over the years from some of our graduates, some of them have described experiences of being in a bubble, so to speak. When they land at college and they’re exposed to a much wider, more diverse world outside of Wilton, the first time it’s a shock … we ought to think about that,” Smith said, although he called it “a small step” to address that.
Smith said the Board’s second decision would be whether there was room to accomodate additional students, not just for the initial year, but through graduation. If the board approved of participating in the program, Smith would recommend students be admitted to either kindergarten or first grade in order to “have the strongest opportunity to make the greatest impact by enrolling students as early as possible in their academic careers. Students that enroll in the early grades have the benefit of receiving our world-class instruction and teachers in all of the early literacy and early mathematics foundational skills… [and] the opportunity to form friendships that will endure, hopefully through their schooling with us and beyond.”
Given projected enrollment and related class sizes for the 2023-24 school year, Smith said he’d recommend the BOE consider adding five students through Open Choice — three students to kindergarten and two students to first grade. He said doing so would “negligibly” shift class averages so that the cost would be “marginal” with no need to increase the number of teachers.
“It’s really adding one more desk into a classroom. Adding three students in kindergarten and two students in first grade wouldn’t require that we open additional classrooms. The teacher’s there, the lights are on, the materials are there, so I don’t see a true add cost, at least in this example,” Smith said.
While he acknowledged no specific rationale for choosing five as the number of students to start with, Smith said it would enable the district to “start small and feel it out.” And while the students would stay in Wilton once accepted, there was no obligation to continue accepting more students in subsequent years if the BOE opted not to continue.
“I think a conservative approach to test the waters would probably be the best way to frame that,” Smith said.
More to Discuss, and Time to Consider
Smith said it would be important to speak with neighboring districts that participate in Open Choice for more information, specifically around potential special education costs. While the law states that the sending district would be resopnsible for paying the difference between the state grant and any special education costs, the law specifies reasonable special educaiton costs, without clarifying what that means.
“It would be worthwhile to talk to colleagues in Westport or Weston that have participated and just get a sense of what that actually means, in terms of how they have encountered and managed reasonable costs of SPED and how they’ve interacted with sending districts to cover the differences they’ve had in those situations,” Smith said.
He added that the BOE members have time to consider the proposal and ask more questions, as CES doesn’t need to know if Wilton will participate until April 15. Smith plans on inviting CES officials to the next BOE meeting.
Board Reaction and Questions
Board member Mandi Schmauch pushed back on Smith’s comparison of the Open Choice program with A Better Chance (ABC), given that Wilton would have no input into which students would attend Wilton as part of Open Choice.
“I used to be very involved with ABC and one of the things about ABC is it’s very selective of high-performing students. They’re selected, prepared and placed and they do have academic benchmarks that they have to sustain… So I’m a little uncomfortable comparing it to ABC then, because it’s great to have diversity and inclusion obviously and be a steward of that. But I just think we should be careful comparing it to ABC in that regards,” Schmauch said.
Board Chair Ruth DeLuca posed several questions that she said would be important for the board to have answered as part of their ongoing consideration. The first area involved more clarification around what potential special education services costs would be covered by each district in the relationship.
“The cost of special education services … whether or not that includes costs and reimbursement around evaluation services? We provide a constellation of services to our students, so are there any parameters around that? Or whether Westport or Weston has experiences around that? Would that also include services around ELL [English Language Learning].”
She suggested it would be important to talk with officials from Westport and Weston.
“I would be interested in learning more not only about their experience with special education, but also just social integration beyond the school day,” DeLuca said.
She also said it would be important to learn what legal obligation the district would have if the state ends the Open Choice program — and its funding — while out-of-district students are enrolled in Wilton through the program.
“I definitely see many benefits from participating in the program. I just want to make sure that we have a full understanding of what that participation means,” DeLuca added.
Schmauch was concerned by the potential cost to the district that would grow as five new out-of-district Open Choice students were added each year. Doing what she called “back of the envelope math,” Schmauch used the current per-pupil cost of over $22,000 and subtracted the $3,000 state grant.
“If you take five students as kindergarteners, they have to stay for the full 13 years, correct? If we just give it 13 years, we could have 65-70 students and it could be costing our district upwards of $1,000,000 a year. I know it’s not exact, but that’s something really important for the community and the taxpayers of Wilton just to understand the potential cost amortized over several years,” Schmauch said.
She suggested her fellow board members should seek public opinion, and urged Smith to engage and invite residents to weigh in as well.
“It definitely deserves a lot of discussion with a lot of input, input from taxpayers and residents of the town,” Schmauch said.
Board Vice Chair Jennifer Lalor said she was also concerned about what would happen if funding from the state diminshed or was eliminated completely. She said it was important to find out not just why some districts were participating, but also why some districts, incuding New Canaan, Ridgefield and Darien, were not participating (although DeLuca reported that the New Canaan school district had also deferred its decision and would be reconsidering whether to participate this year as well).
DeLuca added that Westport currently has over 60 out-of-district students participating in its Open Choice program and Weston has almost 30 students in its program.
In response to a comment from Schmauch about feeling rushed to make a decision on Smith’s recommendation, the Superintendent reassured her and the other BOE members he was not pushing them to decide right away.
“It’s important to have the conversation, to do the analysis. There’s no rush. …You can think about next year, you can think about two years, you can think about 10 years, you can think about never. So when I say there’s no rush, that’s what I mean by that,” Smith said.
The BOE will continue the discussion at its next public meeting on Thursday, March 16.
Editor’s note on public comment: GOOD Morning Wilton publishes names of people who speak during public comment at meetings for several reasons: What happens and who participates at open meetings are part of the public record. Our coverage follows journalistic standards and ethics for news media, and it is our responsiblity to accurately reflect what happens during public meetings.
Three residents spoke about Open Choice during the public comment portion of the meeting. All three spoke to express opposition to the Wilton School District from participating.
Florentina Nica: “I wanted to comment on Open Choice and to ask that you vote for a resounding ‘no.’ And if you do happen to have an extra $1,000,000 in the budget over the span of 13 years, I would love to have lower taxes, so please feel free to give that to me and the other Wilton residents. And if you do also happen to have all that extra money on the budget, then I suggest you spend it on improving the academics of the school…
“I also wanted to say that if you wanted …your children to go to school in Wilton, then you should reside in Wilton. We are in this town because we believe it to be a safe town, to provide a strong academic foundation, hopefully for our children, and all the adult members of my family and I do not voluntarily commute for three hours when we could have literally moved next to the train station in Norwalk, had free public beach access and our children still go to Wilton schools…
“I also wanted to ask if there’s allows [sic] room for budgets and Open Schools, instead for that money to be used to have a salad bar in the schools. I think it’s absolutely atrocious how they have the choice of one vegetable, a carrot or maybe an apple or an orange, and that is all the fresh fruits and vegetables. And a lot of other towns and districts have salad bars in their schools starting as young as kindergarten because you want to build healthy habits. So there are many ways to spend the money for Wilton schools and for Wilton students… Again, I ask, please to vote ‘no’ to Open Choice because there are a lot of things that we need to improve here in Wilton, for our students.”
Fey Wei: “I also have great concern about the Open Choice Program. With only $3,000 from the state funding, I’m sure this is going to cause a lot of extra costs for the district. You know we aready have I think 4.75% on property tax increase due to the school budget change. So how much more tax increase can we take? [Editor’s note: This is incorrect — the increase that has been made public is a proposed increase to the school budget, not a tax increase. Any tax increase will be determined once the mill rate is set and residents vote on a budget at the Annual Town Meeting and Adjourned Vote on May 2 and May 6.]
“And second, I don’t think even think we have optimal resources for the resident students here. It’s still really tough to secure a spot in the art care program and also it’s always hard to get a spot in those popular enrichment programs and I don’t think we have resources to provide academic assistance to students with lower grades. So how can we accommodate those non-resident students without even enough resources for our resident students?
“And third, it sounds like there’s no cap on this program. So if we take five students this year from Norwalk, how can this make Norwalk parents feel fair that we will probably end up taking more and more students every year and there will be no difference from redistricting. Eventually, it’s going to ruin our district and damage property values in Wilton. So I don’t think anyone in Wilton will want to see this happen. So I hope you’ll vote ‘no’ on this program.”
Lauren Phillips: “I also would like for the Board of Ed to vote against the Open [Choice] for additional students. I think the funds, like I mentioned before, that should be in consideration of additional students every year could be added and who’s to say now it’s only five but every year might be more and more [students]. Additionally children with [an] IEP, having that, in consideration for funds as well. So please also consider voting ‘no.'”