Guest editorial / Town must unite to settle SPED controversy
With regard to the controversy over the Darien schools' special education program and its management, I feel compelled to say: We can't have it both ways.
I sympathize with the parents who feel their children's educational needs aren't being properly met, but I feel compelled to remind everyone that a little more than a year ago, the hot controversy in town was over the rising cost associated with special education and its impact on our schools' budget and hence, our taxes.
The administration and Board of Education were told in 2012 in no uncertain terms that they needed to rein in costs -- especially those associated with special education. The administration went out and did just that. Now, perhaps, they have gone too far.
I will wait for the appropriate investigation to be completed before drawing any conclusions, which is not what lots of people, including certain news outlets, have done. In fact, the coverage of the issue has created far more heat than light, and I believe our local media has failed to present the issue in an objective, just-the-facts manner. Breathless headlines, anonymous quotations and hearsay won't help our town solve its problems.
If we, as a town, want the kind of top-notch education system we claim, we are going to have to agree to pay for it. It's been observed that families with special needs children move to Darien because we have excellent special education programs -- how else to explain the explosive enrollment? -- and they should be welcomed. Unfortunately, we can no longer expect the state of Connecticut to foot the bill for these programs at the level they have in the past. The special education reimbursement from the state has fallen for the past several years, and it is unlikely to recover. So we need to decide: Are we lowering our standards, or paying more to maintain high ones?
If the parents of school-aged children in Darien want investment in the schools, they will need to be much more vocal in the course of the normal town budgeting process, and more present, generally, in town government than they currently are. As a member of the RTM, I can tell you that the older residents of our town are well-represented, and while those representatives are generous with our families, they also do a good job of keeping their issues -- and a key one is maintaining low taxes -- front and center. Our parents of school-aged children are not as well represented, and when it comes time to speak up each year for the education budget, I can tell you it is almost always the same very small group of highly involved parents.
I encourage us all to work together to have a reasoned discussion of how we want to address special education, and a realistic look at what it will cost. Wherever possible, let's avoid lawyers and private "advocates." An adversarial approach only forces our schools to hire their own lawyers and consultants, which just costs more of our tax money.
My experience with the Board of Education and school administration is that they are caring, dedicated professionals who really want to do what's best for our children and our town, but they also understand that resources are not unlimited. As a result, they have been put into a very difficult position.
Finally, we need to discuss how we intend to pay for our schools, and if we decide to invest more, every parent needs to be heard so that our Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance understand that this is a priority and we are willing to pay for it. These, too, are smart, dedicated and caring people.
I sincerely believe that if we can cool off the rhetoric and see ourselves as one community trying to do its best for everyone we can solve this problem together.
Robert Kernen is a member of the Darien RTM District III.