Category Archives: Economy

“The Hate U Give” Brings Schools Together

There’s tons of talk about the vast gulf between school districts in Connecticut. Westport and Bridgeport — just a few miles apart — offer particularly stark differences.

Much of the time, it’s only talk.

But a collaboration involving 2 schools, 4 English teachers, and 95 students this year showed what happens when people try to bridge the gap.

The project began with Staples High School librarian Colin Neenan. He thought The Hate U Give — a popular young adult novel about a girl who becomes an activist after witnessing the police shooting of her unarmed friend, and exists in both her urban neighborhood and a wealthy private school — would be a great vehicle to bring suburban and city students together.

Danielle Spies and Barb Robbins — who teach 3A and 2 Honors English respectively at Staples — were selected from among several volunteers. Neenan and co-librarian Tamara Weinberg connected with Fola Sumpter and Ashley LaQuesse, Harding High teachers who were enthusiastic about the collaboration.

First, Westport students went to the Bridgeport school. They met their counterparts, and discussed the first 26 pages of the novel.

One of Robbins’ students was nervous about meeting new, “different” people, the teacher says.

After the first session though, she told Robbins, “They’re just like me. We had so much to talk about.”

Staples literacy coach Rebecca Marsick — who was also involved in the project — adds, “They’re all teenagers!”

Staples and Harding High School students work easily together.

A dramatic reaction came from a Westport girl. She was stunned to hear Bridgeporters say that nearly every day they heard of a friend treated unfairly by police — and at least once a month, someone they knew was shot by an officer.

“I couldn’t think of even one person who had a really negative interaction with the police,” she said.

“I never doubted that people of color constantly face racism. I just never heard about it face to face. It’s crazy to me that I can live a town away from them, and have such a different life experience.”

The next step involved Flipgrid, a video education platform. For 6 weeks the teenagers exchanged videos, posted questions about the novel, and shared responses.

They also read articles about race relations throughout history, explored current events, and studied pop culture and poetry. The common thread was themes that both unite and divide communities.

After 6 weeks, the Harding students came to Staples. They gathered in the library for lunch, free-wheeling discussions, and a special activity.

They created “body biographies”: mapping out what various characters from the novel held in their heart and backbone, for example, and what their eyes focused on.

Collaborating on a “body biography.”

They dug deep — and shared their own lives and experiences too.

“The book is not easy. There are some hefty topics,” Robbins says. “But the interactions were sensitive, and very respectful.”

Then they all posed for a group photo.

The final project was to write stories about current events, and share them with everyone.

Some students said the project was the most important experience they’d ever had in high school. One called it “the most important event of my life.”

“It opened our kids’ eyes to their opportunities here,” Robbins says. “But they also saw how much they have in common with the Bridgeport kids.”

Last fall, two Staples girls wrote research papers on inequality in educational opportunities. To actually see that gap with their own eyes, they told Robbins, was “really compelling.”

The Staples instructor echoes her students’ reactions.

“It took a lot of work. There were logistical issues, and tons of preparation. But this is one of the best things I’ve ever done as a teacher. I learned so much!”

Fola Sumpter — one of the Harding teachers — adds, “This project gave my students confidence as readers, writers and collaborators. They have a new perspective on people, and I am seeing them operate as thinkers on a whole new level.”

A group shot, in the Staples library.

The collaboration may not end. Among other ideas, students from both schools talked about forming a book club.

That’s a great idea. But it’s not as easy as it sounds.

“In Westport, if we want to add a book to our curriculum, we pretty much can,” Robbins says.

“In Bridgeport, they have a tough time even funding the books they already study.”

Westport Firefighter: “Every Neighborhood Deserves To Be Safe”

Some of us look at Westport’s new, large homes and say “oh no!”

Others say “aaah!”

Nick Marsan sees them and thinks “uh oh!”

He’s a Westport firefighter. He knows that — with their open floor plan — new construction burns faster than old.

He also knows that — with just 2 men assigned to one engine in both the Greens Farms and Coleytown fire stations — the situation is dire.

Two men, one engine at the Greens Farms fire station.

Marsan is also president of Westport Uniformed Firefighters IAFF Local 1081.

So he’s decided to speak out.

“Family safety is our number one priority,” he says. “Unfortunately, we’ve reached a point where we can no longer protect you in the way you deserve.”

A 2-person engine crew has limited responses, Marsan says. They can choose to rescue a trapped family member — no easy task, in a large house. Or they can attempt to extinguish the fire.

Marsan says national standards recommend 4 firefighters per engine, to safely battle a house fire in a 2,200 square foot residence.

Westport’s average home size is 5,500 square feet, Marsan notes. He’s asking for only 3 firefighters.

The issue dates back to 2007, he says. Town officials agreed then to 3 firefighters per truck.

But the recession hit. Faced with budget choices, politicians pulled back to 2 per truck — and changed post-retirement benefits for new hires.

The new pension plan will save Westport $40 million over the next 20 years, Marsan says.

So, he believes, “now is the time to put 3 people  on every truck, in every station. The savings are there.”

Every Westporter, he adds — regardless of where in town they live — “deserves a safe and effective response.”

The Westport Fire Department “will continue to do a very professional and dedicated job,” Marsan says.

“We just want as much safety as possible — for Westporters, ourselves, and our own families.”

Today, Westport’s Real Estate Market Changed. Forever.

It’s a typical Westport real estate listing:

“5 beds, 4.5 baths in 4200 sq ft on a quiet cul de sac street close to train, shopping, restaurants in a town that offers a progressive lifestyle.”

5 Ridgewood Lane is off North Kings Highway, between Wilton Road and Old Hill.

But the rest of the write-up for the 5 Ridgewood Lane home is unlike anything you’ve ever read:

Currently accepting CRYPTOCURRENCY. Climb into your very own Crypto Cryb in NYC’s backyard and diversify your portfolio. Blockchain Homes presents its first residential property to be offered for purchase in cryptocurrency. Bring your Bit Coin or Etherum to the one and only Westport, Connecticut modern farmhouse designed and inspired by the crypto climate of a cutting edge lifestyle…. Be the first to make a Blockchain Home purchase.

So how much does it cost?

“250BTC or 3,030ETH.”

That sound you just heard is thousands of local realtors going, “Oh. My. God.”

(Click here for the full New York Times listing. Hat tip: Peter Blau)

For 15 Years, “Ceremonies And Celebrations” Help Teens Graduate

As high school and middle school graduations approach, many Westport students worry about what’s ahead.

Some have more immediate concerns: having the right clothes for the ceremony, and the festivities that surround it.

For 15 years, Westport’s Human Services Department has eased those fears. Its “Ceremonies and Celebrations” program helps purchase new clothing for graduates who cannot afford them.

Last year, 32 Westport students were able to purchase “special event” wear.

Human Services director Elaine Daignault says she always receives “heartfelt notes of thanks, and photos of the proud young people as they walked across the stage or stood with their relatives on this memorable day.”

In the grand scheme of things, the right clothes for graduation might not seem like much. To a teenager, it can be the biggest thing in the world.

Tax-deductible checks (payable to “DHS Families Program”; memo line: “Ceremonies”) may be sent to the Department of Human Services, 110 Myrtle Ave., Westport CT 06880, or dropped off in Room 200 of Town Hall daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Gift cards of any amount (American Express, Visa, MasterCard, Trumbull Mall/Westfield Shopping Center) are also gratefully accepted.

Human Services notes that donations honoring a teacher or special person in a student’s life will be acknowledged with a letter to the honoree.

If you know people who could benefit from this program, contact Patty Haberstroh (hsyouth@westportct.gov; 203-341-1069).

 

[OPINION] Tax On Firearms: An Idea Worth Pursuing?

Like many of her fellow RTM members, Christine Meiers Schatz has been thinking about taxes — and guns. The other day, she posted these thoughts on her blog:

As an elected official, I’m acutely aware of the need to reduce local tax burdens – this year more than ever due to changes in federal tax law. But I can’t shake an idea I’ve had for a new, local “Pigovian” personal property tax on firearms.

Maybe you can help me figure out whether it is an idea worth pursuing.

Pigovian taxes correct inefficient market outcomes and are favored even by conservative Republican economists. By taxing an activity/ownership that has societal costs, a Pigovian tax shifts some of this “external” cost (an “externality”) back on to the property owner. In addition, the revenue raised could fund measures designed to mitigate these social costs.

Westport residents own over 6,000 firearms.

Westport residents own over 6,741 registered firearms, and the related externalities have made recent headlines. For example, Police Chief Foti Koskinas encouraged the town to proactively address residents’ mental health in light of the number of registered firearms. At a fundraiser in December he explained, “I’m not anti-Second Amendment; people have the right to defend themselves. But we need to have a conversation in town about mental illness. It’s gun common sense.”

Likewise, the number of registered firearms has been mentioned as one of many reasons for the town to hire School Resource Officers to protect students in our public schools. Some economists have even estimated that the average annual marginal societal cost of gun ownership is up to $600 per household.

Assuming an average $500 assessed value for each of the 6,741 registered firearms and using last year’s mill rate, the tax would raise over $56,000 each year for local safety and mental health initiatives.

The tax might be the first of its kind, however, which raises some questions:

Would the tax be Constitutional?
I think it might be.  According to the Connecticut Department of Revenue Services, “nothing in taxing firearms, in any way, infringes upon an individual’s constitutional right to bear arms.”

Generally, taxes need only be justified by a rational governmental purpose. This is a low bar, and – especially with respect to Constitutional issues – a much lower bar than what would be applied to a regulation regarding gun ownership. In fact, a Washington State Supreme Court recently deemed constitutional a different type of local tax on firearms.

The tax would be set at the mill rate, and at 16.86 that equates to a tax of of less than $9 for a $500 gun. This doesn’t seem confiscatory or excessive.  The $9 is meant to fund local social programs as a complement to gun ownership – and not meant to limit access to firearms in any way.

Does the town have the right to levy a personal property tax on guns?
Under Connecticut General Statutes Sections 203–204, Connecticut towns have the right to tax personal property subject to a long list of exceptions. There doesn’t seem to be any sort of exception related to firearms.

Would the tax lead to more unregistered firearms?
This is an important question, and I’m not sure of the answer. It does appear, however, that the state of Connecticut requires sellers to report all firearm sales to local law enforcement.

Is Westport willing to burden the potential risks of being an innovator here?
It is possible that the tax might be challenged, though perhaps a large law firm might donate legal services for its defense (any volunteers?). If not, legal costs might exceed revenue for at least the first year.

It has also been suggested to me that Westport might receive national attention if it is the first to implement a personal property tax on firearms, and that’s not the kind of attention that the town wants or needs.

Christine would like to know what you think. Click “Comments” below.

Staples Tuition Grants: 75 Years In 8 Minutes

Staples Tuition Grants turns 75 years old this year.

To celebrate, the organization — which last year provided over $300,000 in scholarships to 115 Staples High School seniors and graduates with financial need — threw a fundraising party this month.

The event met its goal: over $75,000 in donations. (For 75 years — get it?).

One of the night’s highlights was a video. Produced by talented Westport filmmaker (and Staples grad) Doug Tirola, it featured well-known residents and SHS alums like Christopher Jones, Justin Paul, Ned Batlin, Linda Bruce, Jessica Branson, Miggs Burroughs, Anne Hardy, Dan Donovan and Maggie Mudd. They offered insights into their own scholarships and those named for loved ones, plus thoughts on the importance of college and life.

The video — filled joy and heartache, humor and love — is well worth the 8 minutes. Enjoy!

(For more information on Staples Tuition Grants, or to donate, click here.)

Home Energy Solutions $ave $$$

First Selectman Jim Marpe did it. Human Services director Elaine Daignault did it. Over 2,000 Westporters did it too.

“It” is offer up their houses for a Home Energy Solutions Assessment.

They learned whether their doors, windows and ductwork were leaking air. They found out if their insulation made the grade, and if their appliances were wasting energy and money.

When air leaks were found, they got caulked. Light bulbs were replaced with LEDs. Low-flow shower heads were installed, and pipes wrapped with insulation.

A blower test discovers leaks in your home you never knew you had.

The average yearly savings in Connecticut from a Home Energy Solutions Assessment is $200 to $250. This being Westport — where homes are larger, more filled with “stuff” — that figure can be much higher.

It’s a win-win: You help the environment, and save money.

But wait! There’s more!

The Home Energy Solutions Challenge is now underway.  The first 50 Westporters to complete an HES assessment pay only $74. If you’re not in that group, the cost is still quite low: $149. There are rebates on certain appliances and installation of new windows and insulation, too.

And if you’re an income-eligible resident — including renters — there is no cost at all for the service.

The catch — and you can’t even call it that — is that the service is paid for by everyone, through a small surcharge on electricity and natural gas bills.

During the Home Energy Solutions Assessment, a nice guy will even check your bulbs.

The program is promoted by Westport’s Green Task Force and New England Smart Energy Group. The latter organization helped Westport win the Neighbor to Neighbor Energy Challenge in 2013. We had the most number of HES visits and upgrades in the state.

Interested? Click here, or call 203-292-8088 for an appointment.

Not interested? The only acceptable excuse is that — like Jim Marpe, Elaine Daignault and 2,000 other Westporters — you’ve already had it done.

We’re #19. That’s Rich!

Nearly every day, someone sends me a story with a Westport ranking.

Our school system is #1 (or #5 or #163) in the state (or nation).

We are the 13th most livable community in the country, or the 29th safest.

We have the most dogs per capita in Connecticut. Or Teslas. Or toaster ovens.

Most of those emails are quickly deleted. Statistical parameters are arbitrary. Some of the surveys are contradictory (Staples is rising in the rankings! No, it’s falling!) The stories themselves are clickbait.

But here’s one worth publishing. It’s based on fairly hard data.

And, on this slow news day, it’s sure to generate comments.

Bloomberg has just released its list of “America’s 100 Richest Places.” The only criterion: average household income (according to 2016 US Census data).

The richest community in the country is Atherton, California. That Silicon Valley town — near Stanford University, Facebook headquarters and other wealthy, high-status, high-tech stuff — had an average household income of $443,400.

A typical house in Atherton, California …

Scarsdale, New York was 3rd ($387,600). The first Connecticut town was Old Greenwich (#7, $334,900). Darien was 10th ($327,900).

Westport is the 3rd Connecticut town on the list. We check in at #19. Our 2016 average household was $282,400.

Let the comments begin.

(Click here for the full Bloomberg story. Hat tip: Avi Kaner)

… and a typical one in Westport. (Okay, it was recently sold by a guy named Harvey Weinstein.)

Johanna Rossi Turns New York Purple

Johanna Rossi is a senior hedge fund trader.

She’s one of the top women on Wall Street. And she’s doing all she can to change that.

Not that she wants to lose her position. She just wants other women to join her.

In her spare time, the Westporter is a leader of Securities Traders Association of New York — Women in Finance.

Last year, Johanna asked the Durst Organization to shine a light on International Women’s Day. The real estate giant quickly agreed to light One World Trade Center purple.

One World Trade Center, on International Women’s Day 2017.

This year — thanks again to Johanna — Durst is adding purple lights to One Bryant Park and nearby 4 Times Square.

In addition, Durst is allowing STANY-WIF to use the coveted Spire app. It allows users to change the color of spires from their cellphones.

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #PressForProgress. The goal is to “motivate and unite friends, colleagues and whole communities to think, act and be gender inclusive.”

It’s something Johanna Rossi has been doing for years.

(For more on Johanna Rossi and her pioneering work with women on Wall Street, click here. For more on International Women’s Day, click here.)

On International Women’s Day 2016, Johanna Rossi helped ring the NASDAQ bell to celebrate gender equality.

 

Next Generation Steps Up: Will Haskell Throws Hat In State Senate Ring

In the summer of 2016, Will Haskell worked for the Democratic National Committee. Assigned to the “voter protection team,” he researched states that were making it harder for certain citizens — like young people and minorities — to vote.

The 2014 Staples High School graduate wondered what was happening in his home state. To his surprise, he says, he discovered that his own state senator — Toni Boucher — spent “2 decades making it harder to vote.” For example, he says, she opposed early voting, and tried to block online registration.

Then he dug deeper. He saw she’d opposed paid family leave bills, equal pay for equal work, and said that certain gun restrictions put in place after Sandy Hook went too far. She has previously received an A- rating from the National Rifle Association.

“Actually, I think we haven’t gone far enough on gun regulations,” he says. “Our tough gun laws made Connecticut one of the safest states in the country. But there is so much more we can do, from regulating conceal-carry to cracking down on bad-apple gun suppliers.”

Will Haskell and Darcy Hicks (center), at a Westport rally last year supporting gun legislation.

Haskell wondered who had run against her. He found out she’s had minimal opposition for years.

Which is why today, Will Haskell announces his candidacy for state senate from the 26th District.

He’s only 21. He still has a couple of months before he graduates from Georgetown University. He’s deferred enrollment in law school to run.

But he’s in it to win it.

Will Haskell

Haskell spent last summer working in the state’s public defender office, learning about the criminal justice system and the cost of mass incarceration. At night he traveled throughout the 7-town district, listening and learning about the people and issues.

One of the most important is transportation. Trains run slower today than they did in the 1950s, Haskell says — yet the transportation fund is regularly dipped into, for other uses. He supports a transportation “lockbox,” which he says Boucher opposes.

Another key issue is the number of young people leaving Connecticut. He looks at the current legislature, and sees virtually no one of his generation. He believes their voices must be heard.

“Toni Boucher says GE and Aetna left the state because of high taxes,” Haskell says. “But they’re moving to places with high taxes. There’s something more going on.

“We need to look at tax credits, to keep students from Connecticut’s great schools here after they graduate. We need paid family leave policies too.”

Haskell says the 26th district is “moderate.” Hillary Clinton won it by 23 points. He looks forward to working with anyone, of any party, to achieve his goals.

Fortunately, he says, running for office in Connecticut is not expensive. If he raises qualifying funds, he’ll have the same amount of money as his opponent. He’s already organized a series of fundraisers.

Haskell is not a political neophyte. In past years he’s worked on the successful campaigns of Senator Chris Murphy and Congressman Jim Himes, as well as with Hillary for America.

Will Haskell with Hillary Clinton.

Reaction to his candidacy has been positive, Haskell says. “I know I look more like 12 than 21. Most state senators don’t look like me. But that’s why I’m running. I, and people like me, have a stake in our future.”

He’s not apologizing for his age. Far from it.

One of his inspirations came from Barack Obama. In his farewell speech, the outgoing president urged anyone dissatisfied with the current political climate to “grab a clipboard, get some signatures and run for office yourself.” Haskell calls himself “a stakeholder in the future.”

Besides his age, Haskell faces the challenge of running against a well-known and respected incumbent. “I have to make sure people know her voting record,” Haskell says. “She’s opposed to voter accessibility, and criminal justice reform.”

As he travels through the district he hopes to represent — all of Westport, Wilton, Ridgefield and Redding, and parts of Weston, Bethel and New Canaan — Haskell will make his case.

“My platform emphasizes long-term investments in infrastructure, reliable funding for our schools, more robust cooperation between our towns and cities, addressing widespread opioid addiction as the public health crisis it is, and policies that will draw other young people to live and work in Connecticut.”

He’ll be helped by his years at Staples, where he talked about politics with social studies, English, even chemistry teachers. He was aided too by his years in the Players drama troupe. As a senior, he was elected Players president.  Being on stage, he says, “gave me the confidence to stand up and talk in front of others.” (He also became a noted voice speaking against cyber-bullying.)

Staples Players president Will Haskell, in “Avenue Q.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

Harking back to his summer with the DNC voter protection team, Haskell says, “Republicans don’t want my generation near the ballot.” This fall, he promises, “my generation will be on the ballot.”