Tag Archives: Board of Education

Town Budget Passed; Protests Are Past

Last week, the RTM unanimously approved the 2022-23 town budget, of about $222.8 million.

That could be the most underrated, underreported — and astonishing — story of the year.

Each spring for decades, budget battles consumed us. The Board of Finance slashed the Board of Education request. The Board of Ed fought back, with the backing of some — but not all — residents.

Parents argued for and against teachers and/or administrators. Westporters with no kids in school screamed at those who did, and at each other.

The next step — final approval by the Representative Town Meeting — was just as brutal.

Petitions were filed. Referendums were held. An entire political party — the Taxwatchers — formed in the crucible of budget wars.

Dick Leonard, Westport Education Association president, during a budget battle.

Things calmed down in recent years. Still, town boards and the RTM did not always see eye to eye. Department heads were forced to plead their cases, sometimes for just a few thousand dollars.

As Washington has become more polarized, Westport politicians play nice. This year’s requests sailed through, with only a couple of adjustments made.

The numbers seem large: almost $138.7 million for education, about $84.1 million for other town operations,, plus the Library, health and transit districts, and Earthplace.

But the people who make the decisions — Democrats, Republicans and the non-partisan RTM (no Taxwatchers) — seem to agree that Westport is in very sound fiscal shape.

They like the bangs they get for our bucks.

Residents must agree. Peeps in town made very few peeps throughout the process.

Sometimes no news is good news. Washington, take note!

Jen Tooker’s Path To The Top

In 2008, Gen Re transferred Jen and Mo Tooker from the London office to their Stamford headquarters. The couple hunted for homes throughout Fairfield County.

On a February day, a realtor drove them around the corner to Compo Beach.

It was cold. The marina was empty. But, Tooker said, “We’re done!”

They had not seen any houses here yet. It did not matter. The Tookers soon found one.

Westport has been their home ever since.

Tooker soon became part of her new community. She joined the Conservation Commission; served on the Boards of Education and Finance, and was elected 2nd Selectwoman.

On Monday night at Town Hall, she’ll be sworn in for a new post: 1st Selectwoman. She and running mate Andrea Moore were elected last week to the town’s top 2 spots.

Jen Tooker (left) and Andrea Moore, Westport’s new selectwomen.

Though Tooker’s first attraction to Westport was its water, what’s kept her here are Westporters.

“The people here are fabulous,” she says. “They love living here. They get involved. They make things happen.”

Tooker has done more than her share of that. Knowing that this would be “home” for many years, within weeks of unpacking she sought ways to help.

With professional knowledge at Gen Re of flooding, wetlands and property maps, she was appointed to the Conservation Commission.

In 2011 — urged by people who said her skillset was a good fit for the Board of Education — she ran for, and won, a seat.

Democratic chair Don O’Day and Republican vice chair Jim Marpe led a “rock solid, bipartisan” board, Tooker says.

Two years later, she was asked to run for the Board of Finance. She retired from Gen Re, to devote time to public service and raising 3 children.

Jen Tooker, during the 2017 campaign.

In 2017, when Avi Kaner decided not to run for a second term as 2nd selectman, Marpe asked her to join him. She had a front run seat for all that the job entails — all the departmental collaboration, public meetings, budget deliberations, decision-making on issues like masks, weather-related disasters and more — plus the behind-the-scenes work that few people ever see.

Her skills, experience and goals suited her well for the top job. When Marpe announced he would not run for a 3rd term, Tooker was ready.

She and Moore jumped into campaigning. “Westporters are savvy,” Tooker says. “They want to know their elected officials. This was my 4th townwide race. Every time I’m amazed at how much people want to meet candidates, and ask tough questions.”

The questions came via Facebook, Instagram, texts and calls. They came in person too. Tooker and Moore held a number of public meetings — including the porch at The Porch — to answer the questions.

And to listen.

Tooker learned that “by and large, people are really happy to be here. They feel blessed, connected, and invested in the community. They’re super proud of Westport. Whether they’re new or been here for 45 years, that gives them pride.”

She and Moore “had a message, and it ran all through the campaign. We were very focused on local issues, to ensure that Westport remains the best place in the region to live, work and play.”

The ticket won, she believes, because “we had a message that resonated with a sophisticated electorate. Westporters wanted to know us, and vet our message.”

In addition, Tooker says, “We ran a positive campaign. Westporters care deeply about that.”

Though hard work does not always guarantee a win, “we were out there every day, for 7 months. That was critical for people to meet us, and ask the questions they needed to ask.”

Second selectman Jennifer Tooker sported a “Be Bold” shirt at a meeting featuring Westport businesswomen.

Twelve hours after next Monday’s swearing in, Tooker heads back to Town Hall. Her first task, she says, is to meet with department heads. She’ll hear their priorities, talk about collaboration and communication, and make plans for the immediate future.

“It’s important to be a good manager,” she says. “Employees need o feel supported, to go out and do a good job for residents.”

Every 1st selectperson brings a different style to Town Hall. Though she worked closely with Marpe, Tooker says, “in certain situations I may be less patient than Jim. I don’t fly off the handle, but I may push a process or strive for an outcome a little more quickly.”

She calls Marpe “an excellent listener. He processes information by listening to people. That’s an excellent quality in a leader. In this line of work, where we are here to ensure that democracy prevails, it’s crucial to hear every voice. I hope I can be as good a listener as Jim is.”

Jen and Mo Tooker with their children: Jack, Riley and Nicole.

She has always worked — professionally and as a volunteer — so that won’t be new. But 1st selectwoman is a full-time, 24/7/365 job. Tooker had many conversations with her family before deciding to run. They understand the demands of the job.

Her husband Mo, and their children — 20-year-old Jack (a junior at Santa Clara University), 18-year-old Riley (taking a gap year before Southern Methodist University) and Nicole, an 8th grader — are “fully supportive” of her, Tooker says.

Also supportive: Tooker’s parents. They moved here to be with their daughter and her family during the pandemic. Her father, 87-year-old Bob “Pops” Salmon, lives in the Tookers’ home. Her mother is in the memory care unit at The Residence.

Jen and Mo Tooker with her father, Bob “Pops” Salmon.

All are “incredibly proud” of her. And most will be on hand at 7:30 p.m. Monday  in Town Hall, to see Jen Tooker sworn is as Westport’s next 1st selectwoman.

(Monday’s ceremony will also include the swearing in of all boards and commissioners. RTM members will be sworn in the next night, Tuesday, also at 7:30 p.m.)

FUN FACTAfter 12 years in the public eye, there is little that Westporters don’t know about Tooker. They may be surprised though to find out that she is an ardent fan of Chelsea, the English Premier League soccer powerhouse.

Board Of Ed Candidate To His Party: We Must Change

I have not posted anything about the Board of Education campaign — nor did I intend to. The race was uncontested (until the emergence of a write-in candidate), and the Republican and Democratic nominees are largely in agreement on issues like learning loss and infrastructure.

But at the end of Thursday’s mostly uncontroversial League of Women Voters’ forum, one candidate addressed an issue that has percolated both locally and nationally: Critical Race Theory.

In doing so, Robert Harrington broke with the Republican Party that had endorsed him. 

Addressing the anti-CRT signs that have appeared around town — and an anonymous website — he said:

Thank you to the other candidates — and fingers crossed, I hope to be working with all three of you after November 2nd election.

Hopefully tonight has shown it is not about about “Republican vs. Democrat” or “Red versus Blue” when it comes to  a local school board election.

But that is the system that Westport chooses. Political parties nominate candidates.

So as a Republican candidate for the Board of Education in Westport, I have a strong and direct message to my local Republican Party.

To be clear: This is not about my running mate, Dorie Hordon. I look forward to working with her.

But my party’s response to “Wake Up Westport CRT: signs is not okay with me.

Their response to the an anonymous website has not shown leadership throughout the party.

This goes beyond those behind this website, and the lawn signs. They have full right of free speech. There is no issue with that. But it is about how we respond to that message. My party’s response is not okay.

I fear in my local Republican Party I am paying  the price for speaking out. I suspect tonight it won’t get any better.

In terms of the local campaign, I have 4 points to make to my party:

Joint Facebook Page/Account: The Republican Party has  deleted all the content, and has not allowed me to put up any new content — not even highlighting an upcoming meeting about our failing school bus schedules. If you go to HordonHarrngton4BOE, you will see there is zero content there.

Campaign email:  The same here. As a candidate I have not be able to email voters or residents — not even a personal statement.

Message from my party: I’ve been asked or told to stop campaigning, shut up, sit down and cancel meetings.

Questions from residents: A resident asked me online (before the entire contents of the site were deleted) a series of legitimate questions on my views on the future of Trump, my response to January 6, and the way I dealt with “The Big Lie.” I answered all these questions, and was happy to do so. However, the Republican campaign, without my knowledge or approval, deleted all my answers.

This is not democratic. It’s not transparent — for a party that often talks about transparency. It’s not a good look for Westport.

Worst of all: It’s not a good look for local Republican Party. They are acting like the national Republican Party

For the sake of Westport and the local Republican Party: We must change.

=======================================================

I reached out to Republican Town Committee chair Joe Sledge for a response. He referred me to the “Westport Republicans” page on Facebook. and this post pinned at the top of the page:

At last night’s League of Women Voters debate, Robert Harrington commented on procedures that the Westport Republican Town Committee put in place with respect to campaign communications by candidates on campaign social media accounts.

Connecticut State law requires that campaign communications contain specific attribution language, and the WRTC has sought to assure that candidates comply with these rules. Understandably, Robert may not be fully familiar with these regulations. We commend Robert’s passion and willingness to express his perspective.

RTM Passes Town, Education Budgets

Westport has a budget for the next fiscal year.

Actually, we have 2. This week, the Representative Town Meeting approved both the town and education budgets.

Here is Peter Gold’s report on the May 3 and 4 RTM meetings. He is an RTM member and a director of the Westport Transit District writing for himself, and not in an official capacity.

At back-to-back meetings this week, the RTM approved a total town and education budget of $220,814,210. That’s approximately 2.65% more than the current year.

On May 3 the RTM passed the town budget for the fiscal year ending June 20, 2022 of $77,103,992 — a 2.2% increase over the current year.

It also approved several smaller budgets for Earthplace, Westport Library, Westport-Weston Health District, Westport Transit District, railroad parking and Wakeman Town Farm, for a grand total of $85,509,447. That is a 2.59% increase over the current year.

Over 80% of the town’s budget goes to 4 areas: public safety (30%), funding for pensions and other post-employment benefits such as retiree health care (27%), public works (15%) and parks and recreation (9%).

All budgets except for Westport Transit District were unchanged from the budget recommended by the Board of Finance, and all passed unanimously.

In a 32-1 vote, the RTM restored $157,500 cut by the Board of Finance from the Westport Transit District‘s budget for its Wheels2U shuttle service introduced last October. The RTM took note of the letters it received from over 100 individuals and organizations in support of restoring the funds. RTM members also felt the pandemic made it difficult to fairly evaluate the Wheels2U service, and that it should be given a chance to prove itself as life returns closer to normal.

On May 4 the RTM approved the Board of Finance’s recommended budget for the Board of Education. The $135,304,763 approved by the RTM, while $1,347,716 less than the Board of Ed’s original request, is still a 3% increase over the current year.

The Board of Education chose not to ask the RTM to restore funds cut by the Board of Finance. Instead, it managed to make up the amount through increased state aid, and funds received under emergency grant programs like the Coronavirus Relief Fund and the American Rescue Plan.

As in prior years, the overwhelming majority of the Board of Education budget —81% — goes to salaries and benefits.

Prior to voting on the budget, the RTM was briefed by Board of Finance chair Brian Stern on the town’s financial condition. Despite unexpected expenses due to COVID and Hurricane Isaias, the town is projected to finish the fiscal year on June 30 within 1% of the amount budgeted last May. This amount — which can be covered by the town’s reserves — is due to hard work by town employees, and financial aid from state and federal governments.

Board Of Ed, Town Collaboration In The Works

It’s been talked about for a long time. Now it’s official.

Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice and 1st Selectman Jim Marpe will coordinate on upcoming capital projects, it was announced at last night’s Board of Education meeting.

The form of that collaboration is still to be determined. But it’s a step toward bringing the school and town planning processes together.

Also last night, Brian Fullenbaum reports, the board accepted Scarice’s recommendation to ask the Board of Finance to restore $235,363 to its budget. Some members had pushed for a $500,000 restoration.

The board also voted unanimously to retain the law firm of Shipman & Goodwin. Questions had been raised earlier about a potential conflict of interest. In a previous case, attorney Timothy Hollister represented a plaintiff in a zoning case against the town of Westport.

In addition, it was announced that a $700,000 ESSER II grant will be used for both technology and summer tutoring programs.

Supervisor of health services Suzanne Levasseur reported 18 COVID cases in the district last week. Students who test positive from get-togethers are still quarantining. The district will revisit restrictions after the April break.

Board Of Ed Debates Budget Cuts

Money was on the minds of Board of Education members last night.

At their virtual meeting they addressed the gap between their submitted budget, and the $125,594,582 approved last month by the Board of Finance. The difference is $975,284.

Brian Fullenbaum reports that federal grants from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund’s (ESSER) 3rd round will total $1.6 million. The board will reserve 20% of that amount, to address learning loss.

Other grants approved for Westport include a maximum of $947,633 from the COVID relief fund, and $832,917 from the first 2 rounds of ESSER.

Two proposals were made. One would use $607,000 from ESSER II to meet the $975,000 reduction. Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice would then request restoration of the rest of the $367,000 gap.

The other proposal would rely fully on the ESSER III grant money to fill the reduction gap.

Though the possibility of not receiving that third grant is small, the board discussed a backup plan.

The board also noted the need to adjust technology purchases, in the event that online learning continues into the next year.

In addition, education costs may rise due to increased enrollment. Over 100 extra students joined elementary schools, necessitating new hires. Enrollment numbers for next year are already looking strong.

The board deferred a decision until Monday’s meeting.

 

Unsung Heroes #180

It’s budget time.

Every town department has submitted their requests to the 1st Selectman. He and his staff have crunched the numbers, asked them to trim some figures, then compiled it all into a 483-page document.

Now the Board of Finance steps up. They hold hearings next week. First comes the town budget; then education.

They’ll debate. They’ll vote. Then they’ll send their recommendations to the Representative Town Meeting.

There may be some intermediate steps — protests of some cuts, more back-and-forth, public input about what’s essential, what’s a frill, and whose ox is getting gored.

The town budget

But by mid-spring, Westport will have a budget. Everything from pencils to potholes will be funded. Our mill rate will be set.

And — despite perennial complaints about high taxes — just ask relatives and friends anywhere elsewhere in the tri-state are about their taxes. You’ll realize what we pay is pretty low, considering all we get. (Perhaps you can compare your taxes with others while watching the sunset at Compo, walking at Longshore, or waiting to pick up your kid at school.)

Those budgets and mill rates don’t fall from the sky. They involve plenty of planning, short- and long-range; plenty of scrutinizing; plenty of priorities.

And plenty of time. The budget process is months in the making. Much of it is tedious (and eye-straining). All of it is crucial.

Making a budget is the job of town employees. Passing it is the work of volunteers, on the Board of Education, Board of Finance, RTM and other bodies.

The education budget

It’s easy to say “my taxes are too high.” It’s easy to say “why do we need x, y or z?” (of course, your x, y and z is very different from mine).

It’s a lot tougher to study spreadsheet after spreadsheet, attend meeting after meeting, and cast difficult vote after difficult vote.

This week’s Unsung Heroes are all the women and men who make the process work. Westport would not be Westport without your service.

(Do you know an Unsung Hero? Email dwoog@optonline.net)

 

Budget Deliberations Begin

Budget season is here!

The Board of Finance begins its public examination soon.

First Selectman Jim Marpe presents his proposed town budget on Tuesday, March 9 and — if needed — Wednesday, March 10. He’s requesting $77,103,992 — a 2.21% increase over the current $75,439,392.

An additional $6,127,959 includes requests for the Westport Library ($5,090,148), Westport Weston Health District ($590,811), Westport Transit District ($342,000) and Earthplace ($105,000).

Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice and Board of Education chair Candice Savin present their budgets on Thursday, March 11. They ask for $128,013,115 — up 4.98% over 2020-21’s $121,936.488. The bulk of the Board of Ed budget is salaries (64%) and benefits (16%).

Click here to see the entire proposed budgets.

All meetings are held via Zoom, starting at 7:30 p.m. They will be livestreamed on westportct.gov, and shown on Optimum channel 79 and Frontier channel 6020.

Emails to Board of Finance members can be sent to BOF@westportct.gov. Comments to be read during the public comment period may be emailed to BOFcomments@westportct.gov. Full names and addresses are needed.

To comment in real time during the meeting, send an email by noon that day to mmace@westportct.gov. Include your name, address and the agenda item (click here) to which your comments will relate. Participation details will be emailed to you.

Let’s Meet! But Where?

Michael Calise is a native Westporter, Staples High School graduate, former Marine, and a realtor. After a lifetime here, he knows how the town works.

And he keeps an eagle eye on it.

Calise is a frequent meeting-goer. At least, he was until the coronavirus hit, and Westport’s boards and commissions moved online. 

They’re still there.

The other day, Calise wrote to 1st Selectman Jim Marpe. He said:

I am sure you are aware of the level of frustration endured by all of us regarding the inability to attend a public meeting.

Zoom meetings do not adequately convey the opportunity to participate in a meaningful way. The sense of where the commissioners or other deciding members are is missing. It is as if you are speaking to a blank wall.

Mike Calise

This is not to downplay the fortunate fact that we have Zoom and other internet- based meeting venues. I fully recognize their value, but I think we need to do better. With the total decline of print media and other valuable sources of information in the face of ongoing important decisions being made, the entire structure of our community is under a great deal of stress.

With all of this in mind I suggest  that you consider an outdoor venue such as Levitt Pavilion for town meetings. I believe it would be a positive and productive step forward as we transition back to normalcy.

Marpe replied quickly. He said:

As much as anyone, I would like to return to the past meeting structure that we were all used to for the reasons you note. However, we are still in the midst of the greatest public health crisis any of us have ever experienced, and it is unclear when we will be able to conduct public meetings as we have in the past. As a town, we are slowly and cautiously working our way toward incrementally re-establishing “normal.” But “normal” is still going to be different from the past for some time to come.

The elected and appointed leaders of Westport have a responsibility to balance public health requirements, the health of our employees and state-mandated protocols, along with the Freedom of Information Act rules, against the desire for some to meet “in-person.”

The reality is that we have received very few requests for a return to full, in-person public meetings. In many ways, Zoom meetings are more accessible for the majority of the public, because they can be viewed from anywhere there is internet access, which is why we have focused our efforts on the Zoom technology.

Most board, committee and commission members and the related staff members have found a way to work effectively and in a fully informed manner in this new environment. Moreover, they appreciate the commitment by the Town to their health and well-being. And the boards, committees and commissions continue to hear from members of the public via written comment as well as by phone.

In August, superintendent of schools Tom Scarice addressed the Board of Education via Zoom.

Since mid-March, Town Hall has been closed to the general public, even though our employees have continued to work there or from home on behalf of our residents. We are currently moving forward to re-open Town Hall later this autumn for individual daytime appointments.

From a public meeting standpoint, Town Hall presents many challenges.  The auditorium is problematic because of the need to sanitize the space after each meeting to a level of confidence that the various surfaces will not harbor the virus.

The other traditional meeting rooms in Town Hall present the problem of accommodating the typical number of attendees at an appropriate level of social distancing as well as sanitizing.

We ae exploring the possibility of using the Library Forum for some public meetings because the hard surfaces there are easier to sanitize and the space lends itself to easier social distancing for a significant number of people. I will note that the Board of Education has conducted in-person meetings in the Staples cafeteria with no members of the public allowed (similar surfaces and flexible space as the Library).

The Board of Finance will conduct an “in-person” meeting in the Library next week (face coverings and socially distanced), although the public will still need to attend via public access TV or internet streaming.

If all goes well, we may consider opening the Board of Finance meetings to the public for future meetings. That said, we have to recognize that even the Library will be limited in its capacity to host public meetings given its own programming and activities.

The scene at Town Hall, when meetings were held there.

I want to stress that having in-person public meetings in the time of social distancing also presents Freedom of Information Act challenges. FOIA requires that no one be turned away from a public meeting. However, if we go over the 25 person indoor gathering limit, which includes board members and staff as well as the general public, we face having to choose between FOIA regulations and the Governor’s Executive Orders and related public health guidelines.

Your suggestion of conducting public meetings in outdoor venues such as the Levitt will quickly become impractical as autumn and winter weather begins in the coming weeks. Notwithstanding the practical challenges of streaming / televising from outdoor venues, weather concerns would work to prevent many residents from attending and actually limit the possibility of public participation. Ironically, this also presents its own FOIA issues.

We will continue to consider practical, inclusive alternatives to conducting the town’s public meetings in ways that maintain the public health and FOIA standards we must observe.

In the near term, that means that most public meetings will continue to be conducted via computer technology and public access television with ample opportunity prior to, and during the meetings for the public to submit their written public comments. Outdoor venues may become possibilities when the warmer months return.


Speaking of meetings: I have been thinking for a while of adding meeting coverage — Board of Education, Board of Finance, Planning & Zoning Commission — to “06880.”

I can’t do it alone. I need help.

If you’re interested in covering meetings on an ongoing basis — and you are knowledgeable, objective, and can write well and quickly — please email me: dwoog@optonline.net. 

Let’s chat!

 

“06880” Persona Interview: Board Of Education Candidate Liz Heyer

“06880” continues our series of “Persona” video interviews with candidates for local office. Rob Simmelkjaer produces these, as part of his new venture that helps users create casual, interesting conversational videos.

Today’s interview is with Republican Board of Education candidate Liz Heyer. Click below:

To see all other Persona conversations, click here.