Tag Archives: Board of Education

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.

“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.

Click below:

To see yesterday’s interview with Board of Finance candidate Sheri Gordon — and other Persona conversations — click here.

Introducing “06880”‘s Persona Of The Week

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.

Rob Simmelkjaer

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.”

Board Of Finance: “Education Budget Can Be Slowed Without Pain And Suffering”

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.

Lee Caney
Sheri Gordon
Michael Rea
Brian Stern
Jennifer Tooker
Jim Westphal

Schools Superintendent Outlines Budget Cut Consequences

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.

Dr. Landon Looks Back

Way back in 1999, Joyce Landon saw an ad in the New York Times. Westport needed a new superintendent of schools.

She and her husband Elliott loved Westport. When he was superintendent in Ridgefield — a decade earlier — they spent a lot of time here, shopping and riding bikes to the beach. She encouraged him to apply.

He was reluctant. He was happy as superintendent of Long Island’s diverse Long Beach district. Nearly 60, Dr. Landon figured Westport wanted a “crackerjack young curriculum guy.”

His wife persisted. Landon was hired. “Everyone thought I’d be a short-timer,” he recalls.

He certainly was not. He’s been superintendent here for 17 years — nearly 3 times the national average — but the final chapter of his education career is about to close.

Dr. Elliott Landon still has a few weeks left, before cleaning out his office.

Dr. Elliott Landon has a few weeks left, before cleaning out his office.

As Landon prepares to retire — his final day is June 30 — he looks back on his long and remarkable tenure in town.

“I feel like I arrived yesterday,” he says in his Town Hall office. “I’ve had fun. Even with the controversies, I’ve enjoyed it all.”

Landon cites “great Board of Education and community support, and great faculty and administrators. Even during the economic crisis, we held our own. The district did not cut programs. In fact, we’ve expanded them.”

He ticks off his — and the town’s — accomplishments. At Staples, graduation requirements increased from 21 to 25; world language is now a 2-year requirement, with Italian and Mandarin added to the offerings; Science Research, robotics and freshman World Cultures were introduced; music grew; senior internships, the guidance department’s Resilience Project and the Hwa Chong partnership began; John Dodig added “the social and emotional piece,” and guidance, nursing and psychological services were expanded.

Liam Abourezk, BK Browne and Jack Sila showed superintendent of schools Dr. Elliott Landon how they used QR codes on their smartphones, as part of a Staples High project involving art, writing and history.

Staples High School students Liam Abourezk, BK Browne and Jack Sila showed superintendent of schools Dr. Elliott Landon how they used QR codes on their smartphones, as part of a school project combining art, writing and history.

The middle schools added Mandarin and STEM programs, while introducing a  teaming approach. Elementary schools now have literacy and (soon) science coaches.

District-wide, there’s Singapore math, a relationship with Teachers College, and the vision for 2025.

Landon arrived at the start of a major building program. Coleytown Middle School was being modernized; Greens Farms Elementary was reconfigured from the Arts Center, and Bedford Middle School was built on a former Nike missile site.

Meanwhile, the old Bedford Middle was gutted and turned into Saugatuck El. With leadership from Steve Halstead and Dan Kail, Staples was transformed from a dark, cramped and moldy old school into a modern, airy new one.

More recently, Kings Highway Elementary is now fully air-conditioned, while Coleytown El’s gym and cafeteria added a/c too.

Dr. Elliott Landon helped oversee the transformation of the old Bedford Middle School into Saugatuck Elementary.

Dr. Elliott Landon helped oversee the transformation of the old Bedford Middle School into Saugatuck Elementary.

Yet Landon is proudest of the staff he’s helped assemble. “In all those years, we never put limits on hiring,” he says. “We always went for the best people we could find. We picked up people at the top of their game. No one ever stopped us from hiring the best, no matter what the cost.”

He calls the unions — teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals and others — “good to work with. I have no complaints. We might be on different sides of issues, but all of us always wanted the best people, and the best for the kids.”

Landon adds, “The RTM would scream, but it was never personal. And no matter what they said, the Board of Finance always came through in the end.” The result is a staff and school system envied throughout the state.

The retiring superintendent also mentions some of the Board of Ed members he’s worked with: Halstead, Sandra Urist, Gene Cedarbaum, Cheryl Bliss, Linda Merk-Gould, Caryn Gagliano, Don O’Day, Jim Marpe and Michael McGovern, among many others.

“We’ve had issues, of course,” he says. “But overall, they’ve been very, very good.”

Then-Board of Education member Jim Marpe, Staples principal John Dodig and Westport schools superintendent Dr. Elliott Landon observed a student protest at Town Hall.

Then-Board of Education member Jim Marpe, Staples principal John Dodig and Westport schools superintendent Dr. Elliott Landon observed a student protest at Town Hall.

Landon did not get everything he asked for. The expansion of Staples High and redistricting of elementary schools are two examples.

But overall, he says, Westport has been “a fantastic experience. Despite the challenges, the support was always there.”

Among Landon’s personal highlights: Four years ago, he addressed the Staples graduating class that entered kindergarten the same year he arrived. “I saw an entire generation go from K to 12. Knowing I was in some small measure responsible for that was very fulfilling.”

A couple of years ago, Staples baseball coach Jack McFarland invited Landon to throw out the first pitch on opening day. Without any warmup, he delivered “the most perfect pitch ever thrown,” he recalls.

Not long ago, Landon was certified as a mediator by Quinnipiac Law School. In retirement, he plans to help administrators and teachers settle differences before arbitration.

It’s not a new path. In 1973 — as a young teacher — Landon’s photo appeared on page one of the New York Times, with Albert Shanker. They’d just helped Port Washington negotiate the first 5-year teachers’ contract in the country.

Dr. Elliott Landon

Dr. Elliott Landon

He and Joyce — the woman who convinced him to apply for the superintendency he’s now leaving — do not plan to leave Westport.

They love the town, their home, their neighbors, the beach and library. “I may have time now to join the Y’s Men,” Landon says.

Finally, what advice would he give his successor, Colleen Palmer?

“That’s easy. I’d say, ‘You’ve got great people. Encourage them. Support them. Take their advice. And learn from them.'”


In Case You Base Your Vote On More Than Road Signs…

Opinions are like you-know-whats: Everyone’s got ’em.

Westporters know exactly what to do about Baron’s South, the education budget, tree-cutting, downtown parking, Compo Beach, affordable housing, bike lanes, and a thousand different topics.

We are not afraid to share our thousands of different views with our elected officials.

When those officials disagree with us, we think it’s their fault. Even if we did not vote in the election that put them in office.

Knowledge is power.

LWV my town my voteIf you’d like to know exactly who you’re voting for next month — besides seeing their names on lawn signs — come to a pair of League of Women Voters-sponsored debates.

Tomorrow (Monday, October 5) focuses on candidates for the Planning & Zoning Commission, Zoning Board of Appeals and Board of Assessment Appeals.

On Wednesday, October 14, meet Board of Education and Board of Finance hopefuls.

Both sessions are set for Town Hall, at 7 p.m.

But wait! There’s more!

Both days, at 6:15 p.m., voters can meet Representative Town Meeting (RTM) candidates. They’re our unsung civic backbone, with power over everything from final budgets to plastic bags.

Around the world, people continue to die for the right to vote. Here in Westport, you just have to go around the corner.

Super Search Goes Online

As part of the search process for a new superintendent of schools, all Westporters are invited to participate in a brief online survey. Questions include characteristics desired in the next leader. Space is provided for recommendations of individual candidates.

Click here to access the survey.

The Board of Education has also planned community forums, as part of the process to replace retiring superintendent Elliott Landon. The next is set for Thursday, September 10 (10 to 11:30 a.m., Town Hall auditorium).

Westport Public Schools

BREAKING NEWS — Jim Marpe To Run For 1st Selectman; Will Resign Board Of Ed Post

Jim Marpe, a Board of Education member for nearly 8 years and currently its chairman, announced today he is running for first selectman. He seeks the Republican nomination for the election, to be held exactly 1 year from today.

Marpe – who retired as a senior partner of Accenture in 2002 after 32 years with the  international management consulting and computer technology services firm — will resign his Board of Ed seat.

“I’m proud that this board is as non-partisan as possible,” he told “06880” today. “I don’t want anything the Board of Education does to be seen through a political lens.”

Jim Marpe

Although the selectman’s race is a full year off, Marpe believes “it is important to begin now to build the organization and broad support that will be required to win the most important government management and leadership position in Westport.

“Many Westporters are concerned about the real and potential deterioration of town services, and their impact on the quality of life that we have come to expect,” he adds.

“Westporters know that by maintaining that quality of life in all its dimensions – including schools, beaches, athletic facilities, Longshore, open space, well maintained roads and facilities, responsive and helpful town employees, entertainment options, the arts, shopping, dining, etc. — we can maintain our home values, which for many is still their largest investment.”

His plan for maintaining and improving Westport’s quality of life includes:

  • A focus on economic development and overall land use planning that would improve the commercial tax base to lessen the burden on individual households, and assure the town remains physically attractive and “user friendly”
  • Addressing long-term debt, pension and retirement-related benefit obligations through appropriate restructuring and labor contract negotiations.  “The financial overhang of these obligations has a direct impact on the town’s ability to address day-to-day operating issues, as well as initiate long-term improvements,” Marpe says.
  • Initiating a long-term infrastructure improvement plan that would help creatively address challenges such as extended power outages, flood and wind related storm damage, railroad station parking and senior housing.  “Implicit in this process is the need to find environmentally friendly and progressive ways to deliver solutions and also take advantage of the dramatic changes in information technology delivery and support,” the candidate says.

Marpe adds: “I also recognize the importance of public/private partnerships in achieving solutions to many of our local challenges.

Jim Marpe (left) with Staples principal John Dodig, in 2009. They were outside Town Hall, where students were speaking about the proposed Board of Education budget.

“I believe my educational and professional experience, and my track record of effective leadership in local government and not-for-profit organizations has prepared me to lead Westport in addressing these and the dozens of other challenges that we face in order to keep Westport a ‘great’ town.

“Moreover, I believe my experience allows me to bring a high quality of management and leadership to Town Hall and our various town services.”

Marpe is currently chairman of the Westport Weston Family Y, and serves on the board of Westport Rotary. He is a former moderator of Green’s Farms Congregational Church, and board member of Homes With Hope.

Marpe’s resignation from the Board of Education is effective on Tuesday (November 13). That way, he says, the board has time to find a candidate who can participate fully in 2013-14 budget deliberations. That process begins in January.

Marpe says, “as current chairman of the Board of Education, it will be my privilege to nominate Elaine Whitney for election as permanent chairperson for the coming year at our November 12 meeting.  I will leave the Board knowing that its leadership will be in good hands, and that all its members will continue to operate in the best long term interests of Westport students and taxpayers.”

Whitney, a Democrat, is expected to be elected. Democrats form a 4-3 majority on the board.

Don O’Day — immediate past chairman of the Board of Ed — says, “I have known Jim Marpe since 2005 when we both ran on opposing tickets.  He is my friend and, in my opinion, among the most dedicated, talented and hardest working public servants in Westport.

“During the last 7 years, Jim and I worked closely together to ensure that our schools delivered exceptional results with an open and transparent budget.  Jim would often remind me that the answer to the many challenges facing our schools was not necessarily to throw money at the problem. Rather, he insisted that we drive an open discussion with subject matter experts and find a solution that worked best for everyone.”