Magnet school creates friction
"I'm delighted we had such a response," Burns said. "The message has to be in New Milford that we need to do a better job. The administration needs to work to make our schools more competitive."
Burns pushed her colleagues on the New Milford Board of Education to become partners with Danbury and four other towns in the state-funded, 300-seat Western Connecticut Academy of International Studies
The board voted 6-4 to become partners, but limited the number of students to 15. They could have gone as high as 45.
The district's tuition for each student is $1,000 plus the cost of bus transportation, with reimbursement of $1,300 per student. Burns and others who favored the option said this is a much lower cost than the current $9,000 per student in New Milford schools.
Opponents who favor choice but fear unanticipated costs said transportation for magnet school students could be as high as $40,000 or more. Those are dollars they said they would rather invest in local programs and services that have been hit hard by budget cuts.
When the board approved allowing parents to enroll children in the magnet school - only partner schools were offered seats - members did not know how many families would be interested.
By the May 24 deadline, 98 families applied for the kindergarten to fourth-grade spots.
On Thursday, a lottery at the Danbury school district offices will select 15 New Milford students.
Since her election in November, Burns has voiced her opposition to the district's educational philosophy and approach, and severely criticized the administration, particularly Superintendent JeanAnn Paddyfote .
She said her concerns have prompted her to enroll her preschool-age son at Rumsey Hall in Washington, Conn. for next year.
"I'm glad parents are doing their homework and want to be involved in their children's education," Burns said. "I think New Milford could do a better job in welcoming parents into the schools and soliciting their input."
Paddyfote said she believes much of the draw of the magnet school is its novelty.
"It is a very attractive and welcoming building, and it will offer children a whole new experience, a multi-cultural education . . .," Paddyfote said.
It also offers what most other area school districts have been unable to afford: all-day kindergarten.
"Certainly, there are people who perceive that this would be a better education," Paddyfote said. "I would like to ask the parents for that feedback."
But she said she is far from ready to make the assumption that families who applied for the magnet school are unhappy with New Milford's offerings.
Board chairman Wendy Faulenbach said she believes it's unfair to suggest parental interest in the magnet school correlates to dissatisfaction with the New Milford district. She said there are many reasons families might want to try a new approach to elementary education.
"Some might just want to be adventurous," said board member David Lawson . "My concerns are the long bus commute for elementary students, when we already have so many complaints about long bus routes."
But Burns said she intends to push the administration to take a hard look at what it does so it can remain competitive. She said she hopes next year the board will make more seats at the magnet school available.
"We'll just have to wait and see," Paddyfote said.
Contact Nanci G. Hutson
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