MADISON — The Board of Education is considering offering seats to students from the New Haven Public Schools through Open Choice, a statewide program that allows students in urban districts to attend school in nearby suburban towns, and suburban students to attend urban public schools.
In a memo to the Board of Education, Superintendent Craig Cooke requested that the board allow him to begin drafting legislation and speaking with state legislators about allowing Madison to partner with New Haven.
Madison is currently classified in the New London region, which no longer has an Open Choice program.
In May, the state legislature approved a proposal from Guilford, which was also classified in the New London region, to accept students from New Haven. Like Guilford, if Madison wants to participate in the Open Choice program with New Haven, the district will have to draft a bill to be voted on in the state legislature in the spring.
At a Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, Cooke said that he didn’t expect the district to be able to offer seats to students for another two years, but that he had spoken to both district administration and the district’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee, and they had responded with enthusiasm for the idea.
The state provides a grant to the host district for each Open Choice student that the district accepts. Cooke said in the memo that he planned to offer 10 seats each year for students from New Haven to attend Madison Public Schools, and that he didn’t expect the number of Open Choice students to be more than 50, or two percent of the student population, “for the foreseeable future.” Based on the number of students Cooke anticipates, Madison would receive a $3,000 state subsidy for each student.
Board member Jennifer Gordon pointed out that Madison’s per-pupil sending was approximately $21,000 — much higher than the $3,000 Open Choice grant from the state. But Cooke said that didn’t accurately reflect the cost of bringing Open Choice students into Madison.
“One more student in a kindergarten class does not cost $21,000. When it costs $21,000 is when I have to add another teacher or another classroom,” he said.
Cooke told the board that he would speak to administrators and teachers about which grade levels could take students from New Haven each year. Ideally, he said, the students would enter the district at a time when all students are transitioning to a new school — kindergarten, 6th grade, and 9th grade. Once an Open Choice student enters the district, they have the option to stay until they graduate.
Cooke said that the district would use the funding to support the Open Choice students and their participation in afterschool activities — for example, providing late buses for open choice students that participate in extracurriculars.
Some board members raised concerns about the proposal. Board member Diane Infantine-Vyce said she was concerned about what would happen if there was another public health event like the COVID-19 pandemic where districts would want to minimize community spread.
Infantine-Vyce also said she felt it wasn’t fair that students from New Haven would receive late bus services when students in the district did not.
“We are here for Madison Public Schools and for the families in Madison, and so I want to put Madison first,” she said.
But board chair Seth Klaskin said it wasn’t fair to say to Open Choice students that they were welcome to attend school in the district but couldn’t participate in extracurriculars.
“To me, in for a penny, in for a pound, and it’s probably not going to cost that much to organize a bus to go into New Haven at 5 o’clock,” said Klaskin.
Cooke agreed with Klaskin, and said that he had seen other districts that had been successful with keeping students and parents connected and involved with all the district’s offerings.
“We watched districts that did it really well. And I think districts that did it really well … involve students in all aspects,” he said.
Klaskin did wonder if the district could speak to the legislature about transportation costs, given that it would cost more to transport students from Madison to New Haven than it would for students that attended Open Choice programs in suburbs closer to the city, like North Haven.
The state provides busing for Open Choice students to travel to and from school for the regular school day. Cooke said that the state would most likely provide a joint bus for Open Choice students from New Haven who were being transported to Guilford and to Madison.
As for providing students in the district with late buses, Cooke said he was open to the idea, but that layout of the town made that difficult.
Board members said they saw clear benefits to having Open Choice students come into the district that, in their minds, outweighed the potential logistical challenges.
“In my mind, the whole program benefits us and brings an important level of diversity to our largely homogenous student population,” said Klaskin. “It would be worthwhile for us to invest in — and understandable that we would need to invest in — transportation and busing if we’re going to have the benefit of those added students.”
Board member Steven Pynn agreed.
“From my perspective, the value of the district being involved in the Open choice program is huge in terms of the world the kids need to prepare for and that they will live and work in,” he said. “It’s a particular weakness of this community in terms of their exposure to diversity, so in my understanding, that’s been a long standing goal — how we can look at ways to address that.”
Board member Catherine Miller said that while she saw the need to be “fiscally responsible” she also recognized that the benefits from the Open Choice program would bring to Madison students might not be easily quantifiable.
“We’re thinking about how much we would give to the students who would come from other towns, but I think that we also need to weigh how much we would get from having experiences and having opportunities to work with kids from other towns,” she said. “Some things that you gain from experiences are not necessarily measured by a dollar amount.”
Klaskin also noted that many “high performing” districts in the state participated in Open Choice.
“It almost kind of feels like we may be a little bit behind and we may be selling ourselves short in not benefiting from already having students who could broaden our interpersonal relations as our students move through school.”
Cooke said he would have further conversations with superintendents that participate in the program, and board members agreed to vote on the proposal at a future meeting.