Darien Debates Escalating Special Education Burden and Costs for Public Schools

Credit: Robin Breeding

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Darien is one of several public school districts asking local taxpayers for a higher-than-average boost in the school budget.  “It’s a tough year for everybody across the state but certainly in our DRG [District Reference Group],” Board of Education Chairman Jill McCammon remarked at Thursday’s Special Meeting. 

Darien’s proposed school budget is an increase of 6.19%, an historic jump from previous years.  Even with the $7 million in additional spending, the administration and board are still wrestling with cuts to teaching positions and playing a game of administrative musical chairs to keep expenditures in check.

With higher health insurance costs, negotiated pay raises for teachers and the expiration of federal COVID funds, school districts across Fairfield County are feeling the pinch. 

The Danbury school district has proposed a hefty budget hike of 19.8 percent which John Spang, Chief Financial Officer of Danbury Public Schools, attributed to increased enrollment and the loss of a COVID ESSER grant.  

The neighboring school districts of Westport and Norwalk are seeking budget increases of over 8 percent while New Canaan, Greenwich and Stamford schools are considering boosts of around 6.5 percent.  The school budgets of Wilton and Fairfield call for increases of 5.5 percent.  

For Darien, the biggest budget item, accounting for over 24 percent of the total budget, is the soaring cost of providing special education services to a growing number of students.  

According to the Pew Research Center, students in special education now make up 15 percent of the K-12 student population in this country, nearly double what it was in the 1970s.  In Connecticut, the percentage of students in special education is 16.9%.  

With 19 percent of its students receiving special education services, Darien surpasses the national and state averages and has the highest rate among area schools.  In New Canaan, 12.5 percent of students are in special education and in Weston, the rate is 13.75 percent.

With a higher rate comes increased spending for teachers, administrators and tuition payments for “outside placements.” 

Federal and state law requires local school districts to place students in schools outside of a district when that district’s own special education programs are unable to meet the needs of a student.  For Darien, these placements amounted to $6.5 million in tuition payments in this school year’s budget and are projected to increase by over $1.5 million next year. 

A growing population of special education students, as in the case of Darien, also incurs the cost of more administrators to attend Planning and Placement Team meetings and facilitate the Individualized Education Programs.

According to Darien Superintendent Alan Addley, it’s not unusual for the district’s administrators to spend 50 percent of the day in meetings, most of them being PPTs.  “Our assistant principals can’t get out of their offices because they’re buried in meetings,” Addley said.  

To help reduce that burden, Addley has asked the board for two new assistant principals — one each for Darien High School and Middlesex Middle School.  

Darien already boasts the highest number of administrators per student of any of the schools in its peer group.  Currently, there is one administrator per 129 students in Darien compared to one administrator per 217 students in Wilton and one per 172 students in New Canaan.  

The optics of adding an assistant principal at the middle school while eliminating six teaching positions is problematic to some parents. 

“These decisions to cut teachers while adding administrative positions sends a message about who is valued in the schools and who is disposable,” Kristy O’Hagan, mother of a middle-schooler, told board members. 

It’s a local debate that mirrors a nationwide trend of administrative growth far outpacing teaching hires.  The number of district administrators in U.S. public schools has grown 87.6 percent between 2000 and 2019 compared to student growth at 7.6 percent and teacher growth at 8.7 percent.  

The chairman of the RTM’s Education Committee, Ed Washecka, expressed his committee’s “significant concerns” about the long-term trends in special education spending.  

Echoing those sentiments, Beth Lane, member of RTM’s Committee on Finance and Budget, called the increased spending in the FY 24-25 budget “too high” and “not sustainable.”