While Darien officials, including the First Selectwoman, and leaders from the Board of Education, Board of Finance, and Planning and Zoning Commission, were on hand on Monday, Dec. 12 to give the Representative Town Meeting a report on the State of the Town, many RTM members were focused on one issue—school security officers.
The Board of Education plans to spend $296,000 on school security officers for the elementary schools. A letter from Superintendent Alan Addley wrote in a letter to the Board of Finance that “the proposal is to add six (6) School Security Officers (SSOs) including one SSO for each of the five elementary schools as well as one floating SSO who would cover absences across elementary and secondary schools when needed.” The goal was to help enhance the district’s security measures in its schools, according to school officials.
The proposal first was discussed at Board of Education meetings in September, and after it was approved by the Board of Education, was brought before the Board of Finance in November. At that meeting, the board “suggested the Board of Education use the projected FY2023 surplus to fund the request.”
More than a dozen members of the RTM voiced concerns in two main areas—some on the substance of the policy in general, having armed guards in elementary schools, while others were upset about the procedure. By using the surplus, the school district didn’t need to come before the RTM to approve its funding for this proposal, something that many members objected to.
“This is the first time in the history of the town that 7 permanent [full-time employees] have been added off cycle,” said Jack Davis, chair of the RTM’s Finance and Budget committee.
Davis said that the review of the budget is part of the “checks and balances” that are part of the town’s processes.
“Failure to have such conversations is contrary to the town’s democratic process,” he said.
RTM member Katie Vanovitch said that this “affects me personally,” because she has four children in Darien's schools.
“This is not a small change to our schools and our community. It’s a large issue. I’m stating the obvious, but we have a massive gun problem in this country,” she said. “But more guns is never the solution. I’m a mom, I can empathize with the emotional decision here. I can understand as a parent the need to feel like you’re doing something to address this issue, I hear those who are so strongly for this. We all just want to protect our kids.”
Still, Vanovitch said that “no data, no facts, support putting guns in our elementary schools.”
“I feel like putting guns in our grade schools deserves at least as much discussion as remodeling a playground,” said RTM member Dan Guller.
Guller, who said he has a son starting at Hindley Elementary School next year, said that his son would be “about gun height and I’m not thrilled with that.”
He also said that he wasn’t thrilled with the process, particularly the Board of Finance’s decision to “circumvent” the largest body in town.
Ed Washecka, Chair of the RTM education, said that he didn’t agree with the comments about the district “circumventing” the process, since this issue was discussed publicly at multiple Board of Education meetings, in emails sent to parents, and at the Board of Finance.
“Short of going door to door, or talking to people on the train platform…I am not sure what else Dr. Addley could have done in this regard,” he said.
In his State of the Town address, Board of Education Chair Duke Dineen addressed the conversation around the security officers.
“Nothing has been circumvented in the process,” he said. “To say otherwise is a falsehood.”
Dineen said that the Board of Education “worked hard with the Board of Finance and the police chief” to put together these plans and that they believed “this is the best next step for our school community.”
“We are a leading district in implementing these security protocols in our schools,” he said. “Playing politics around process is not leadership… We act on behalf of our students.”
State of Town Updates
First Selectwoman Monica McNally highlighted multiple town initiatives including:
- Addressing flooding issues that stemmed from the 2021 Elsa and Ida storms
- Inspecting and potentially finalizing the purchase of Great Island
- Enhancing town programs and parks, which have been more heavily used since the start of the COVID-19
- Preparing for new developments to come on line, including in Norton Heights and the downtown areas.
- Responding to an increase in mental health needs in the community
The $100+ million purchase of Great Island was a large topic of conversation in the town over the summer, when preliminary approvals were granted for town officials to move forward. Since then, the town has been moving forward with inspections and “due diligence” to complete the sale, but McNally said that the town has “uncovered items that are holding up progress.”
She said that they “hope to have an update” within 100 days on the status of the purchase.
Planning and Zoning Vice Chair George Reilly described new developments in town, particularly the Darien Commons, a mixed use development near the Norton Heights train station, and the Corbin District, a new downtown district in the heart of Darien.
“Planning and Zoning has made improving downtown a priority,” Reilly said, adding that this will help “bring more activity downtown,” which “will only benefit existing business.” He noted that these developments would help bring an increase of $100 million to the town’s grand list which “occurs very rarely in a town like ours.”
In addition to addressing the school security officers, Dineen also highlighted the ongoing construction to improve the school district’s facilities including the Ox Ridge and Hindley, Holmes, and Royle building projects.