Photo: Erin Kayata / Hearst Connecticut Media
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The Board of Education discussed the future of the alternative high school program, Fitch Academy, at a meeting in Darien, Conn. on Nov. 28, 2017.

DARIEN — As they prepare for budget season, the Darien Board of Education voted to make Fitch Academy, the district’s new alternative high school program, a permanent program.

The unanimous vote at Tuesday’s meeting to transition Fitch Academy out of its pilot program phase kicks off what Superintendent Dan Brenner said is going to be a quiet budget year for new programs, with the district shifting its focus to enhancing its current academic rollouts.

The proposed budget for Fitch Academy during the next academic year would accommodate 24 students, double the amount in the program right now. The budget proposes around $414,000 for the program, including the costs of the 1.5 staff members who’d be moved part-time to the program, a part-time psychologist and a projected $72,000 lease.

The district currently pays $24,000 to rent out two rooms in the library for Fitch Academy. This is the only additional cost of the program to the district, as the 2.09 staffers in the program were already in the budget. It has saved the district around $193,000 in outplacement costs, $45,000 in transportation and about $5,500 in tutoring.

Next year’s budget predicts the district will save around $323,000 in outplacement costs, $75,000 in transportation, as well as around $5,500 in tutoring. The total cost of the program under this projection would be around $10,000. However, the program would also be saving the district money in students they would be accommodating anyways.

“You can interpret this bottom line program will cost $10,000, but I’d like to clarify we’re not just going to see reduction from out of district enrollment,” said board member Debra Ritchie. “But there could’ve been children in future who would’ve been outplaced.”

However, Brenner said he hopes the cost of next year’s Fitch Academy would be lower, pending on factors like the rent of the new space and teacher salaries.

“My hope is we can come in for less,” he said.

Brenner said he’s still looking for a new space in town. The program requires a space with two rooms that can be used as classrooms, a common space, two handicap accessible bathrooms, and two offices to be used for staff and for students who need mental health assistance.

Brenner said the district is an ideal tenant: the school lacks traffic, only needs the space 10 months of the year and is done with it by 3 p.m. However, the requirements of the program, plus safety requirements needed in a school environment has made finding a space difficult.

“Real estate in Darien is costly and there’s not a lot that can accommodate us,” Brenner said. “If we can find the perfect space, we can come back and ask for a longer lease, but a longer lease will probably be five years.”

The board was in agreement that despite any upcoming costs, the program is worth it due to not only the long term savings from outplacement and busing costs but in the benefits to students in the district. Fitch Academy tends to students with long-term medical conditions, attendance issues or students struggling emotionally with the pressure of attending a large high school.

“This audience is an audience whose needs we’d serve no matter,” said board member Jill McCammon. “We’re not required to do it in this way, but legally we’re required to serve these students. I hear questions about why we do this? Are we creating a program for kids who need to be tougher? I’ve heard it, I want us to answer it.”

“The psychologist in me wants to answer this,” Brenner replied. “There but for grace of God does someone walk in shoes of parents suffering like these students. These are kids that for whatever reasons are having their own particular issues that need their own particular support and because of this program can thrive. I come from the school of thought that kids strive from adversity...that’s not this group. This is not a situation where we’re coddling kids. They’d be struggling at high school or out of place because they can’t manage. We’re in the business of educating.”

Board member David Dineen proposed presenting the budget numbers of the program to the public in a way that makes it clear this is not a profit-and-loss situation.

“What a lot of people see is were spending six million in outside education,” he said. “I just think we need to show it a different way. Everyone needs to understand the cost, but these are the potential savings based on what you as educators know about these individual students.”

ekayata@hearstmediact.com; @erin_kayata

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