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.
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.
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 email@example.com)
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%).
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your name, address and the agenda item (click here) to which your comments will relate. Participation details will be emailed to you.
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.
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: email@example.com.
“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.
Posted onOctober 24, 2019|Comments Off on “06880” Persona Interview: Board Of Education Candidate Vik Muktavaram
Yesterday, “06880” introduced the first in a series of “Persona” video interviews with candidates for local office. Rob Simmelkjaer is producing these, as part of his new venture that helps users create casual, interesting conversational videos.
Today’s conversation is with Republican Board of Education candidate Vik Muktavaram. Saugatuck Elementary School PTA member Jen Berniker conducted the interview, which begins with a question about redistricting.
To see yesterday’s interview with Board of Finance candidate Sheri Gordon — and other Persona conversations — click here.
Comments Off on “06880” Persona Interview: Board Of Education Candidate Vik Muktavaram
Earlier this year Rob Simmelkjaer — who ran for 2nd Selectman in 2017 — left his corporate gig with NBC Sports and News to pursue a personal mission.
His goal: Develop a multimedia platform giving people the tools to create and discover great interviews and conversations. His company is called Persona.
Though national in scope, its rollout begins locally this month, with a custom interview service. Today, Rob and I are excited to announce a collaboration: the “06880 Persona of the Week.”
Each week, Rob or a Persona colleague will interview an interesting member of the community. Topics and interview subjects will be varied and unlimited, from local movers and shakers to those doing amazing things well beyond our borders.
Each interview will give “06880” readers a chance to meet a neighbor, and see the amazing things that happen when people sit down to chat.
With elections looming, we decided to start with a sprint.
Between now and Election Day we’ll post interviews with each of the Republican and Democratic candidates for the Boards of Education and Finance. These non-partisan interviews will give voters a chance to get to know the candidates, and encourage Westporters to vote.
We start with the Democratic candidate for re-election to the Board of Finance, Sheri Gordon. Tomorrow: Republican Board of Education candidate Vik Muktavaram.
More candidate videos will follow, in the coming days. After the election, this feature will become an actual “Persona of the Week.”
Six of the 7 Board of Finance have written an open letter to Westporters. They say:
Westport has worked hard to prudently manage its finances and tax base. All branches of our town government, many elected officials and volunteers, have worked collaboratively, on behalf of all residents, to ensure we have a high quality of life at a cost all residents and businesses can afford. Sadly, maintaining this balance will be more difficult in the future.
Today we are faced with grim economic news from the State of Connecticut. This is not a one-off problem and it will continue for years to come. Because of our state government’s inability to manage their budget and control spending, resulting in a projected deficit of over $1.5 billion next year alone, Westport finds itself in a difficult position. Instead of tackling a state government that has grown too large and too expensive for the residents, the state is largely trying to solve its budget problems by shifting costs to towns.
First, the state is decreasing or totally eliminating payments it has made to Westport for either education or other services, which equals $3 million to $4 million in 2018 alone. We assume this revenue from the state, which directly supplemented our operating budgets, is permanently gone.
Second, the state is discussing transferring ongoing costs from the state budget to the town budget, in the form of teacher pension costs. If it does not come in the form of teacher pension costs, we still believe transferred costs will come to us in another form.
The total impact in 2018 will be in the $8 million range (based on the proposals currently on the table). Rather than pass these costs directly on to Westport taxpayers with a big tax increase, approximately $800 per household, the Board of Finance asked our town to come together as a community to find ways to slow the growth of operational costs.
The Police, Fire Department, EMS, Public Works, Parks and Rec, Library and Town Hall staff did what they could, and reduced their initial operating budget submissions by 1.5%. We also asked the Board of Education to trim its submission by 1.5% or $1.7 million. This actually results in an increase of 1%, or $1 million over the prior year education budget.
Now it is time for the Board of Education to join with the Westport community to do its part, as they have before. This is not the time for pitting parents against the rest of the community. We must all do what we can to try to provide the best services to everyone in Westport at the most reasonable cost.
As we have learned in the past, it is indeed possible to slow the growth in the education budget without significant pain and suffering. For example, in the aftermath of the Great Recession crisis, the school system proposed an extremely responsive budget, and even gave back a sizable year-end surplus, with minimal impacts to our children.
We ask the Westport school administration, Board of Education, PTA, teachers and parents to come together collaboratively to try to discern what areas of the education budget can be trimmed without impacting our children’s futures. We know that in order to continually be a leading school district that we must continue to innovate. That means evolving and becoming better consumers at every level.
This is not a circumstance of Westport’s making. None of us can be satisfied with the decades of financial mismanagement in Hartford. The unfortunate reality is that successful communities such as Westport are being forced to shoulder the burden of Hartford’s failures.
Let’s take our passion regarding our schools to the state. All Westport citizens should be telling our representatives in Hartford — Toni Boucher, Gail Lavielle, Jonathan Steinberg and Tony Hwang — that Westport will not stand for being the state piggy bank. This is where we should raise our voices and be heard.
Last week, the Board of Finance voted to cut the education budget by $1.7 million. Today, superintendent of schools Colleen Palmer announced possible reductions, if that cut is sustained.
Other reductions may also be added to the list. Right now, it includes:
Implementing “pay for play” at Staples High School
Eliminating freshman sports at Staples
Eliminating individual music lessons in grades 4 – 8
Reducing club and after-school offerings at the middle and high schools
Reducing the Workshop Program
Eliminating bus monitors
Deferring yearly technology purchases
Eliminating all 4 grade level assistants at Staples (the previous proposal eliminated 2)
Eliminating library paraprofessionals
Moving to a “double 3 tiers” of elementary busing, causing a 3:45 pm dismissal at either Long Lots, Coleytown Elementary or Greens Farms.
Palmer noted that according to union contracts, salary and benefits require at least a 3+% budget increase each year.
“The structure of education funding in Connecticut is grounded in binding arbitration for our union contracts,” she said.
“It is impossible to hold costs constant for education when there are built-in systemic accelerators which we do not control. A $1.7 million cut forces severe reductions, impacting the quality of our district.”
The Board of Finance meets on April 5 at Town Hall (8 p.m., Rooms 201/201A). At that time, they may consider restoration of funds cut at their previous meeting.
The Board of Ed will discuss these issues at its own meeting this Monday (March 27, 7:30 p.m., Staples cafeteria). The meeting will be televised on Channel 78.
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