By Jarret Liotta
In a tight vote late Monday night, the Board of Education (BOE) stood by its K-6 plan for next year to alleviate the overcrowding caused by the closure of Coleytown Middle School (CMS).
The Board of Education listens to public comment Monday night. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Jarret Liotta for WestportNow.com
Following a report from members of the CMS Task Force, who told the BOE it was very likely the school could be reopened by fall of 2020 — and potentially even as early as fall of 2019 if everything fell into place incredibly fast — three BOE members sought to change the board’s plan for next year to one centered on a townwide middle school.
“I would strongly encourage us to reconsider this,” said BOE member Vik Muktavaram, who made the motion to change the plan based on cost concerns, as well as worries over the particulars of implementing the plan.
The motion was defeated in a 2-4-1 vote, with Muktavaram and Elaine Whitney voting in favor, Chairman Mark Mathias, Vice Chair Jeannie Smith, Candy Savin and Neil Phillips voting against, and Karen Kleine, who spoke in favor of the change, abstaining.
Kleine then proposed a modified motion that would keep Bedford Middle School as the townwide school next year, but with extra space at Staples High School integrated and portables added, but it too was defeated.
“We can’t keep bringing up new motions,” said Mathias, who wouldn’t allow further public comment owing to the lateness of the hour.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations,” he said. “We really have.”
“We can’t negate the fact that we already made this decision,” said Smith, noting that she and other families were already invested in the K-6 plan.
Board members Vik Muktavaram and Elaine Whitney, voting to overturn the previous decision to go to a K-6 plan next year, look to Karen Kleine, who also spoke in favor of the return, but abstained in the 2-4-1 vote on a proposal to make a single 6-8 middle school next year and keep the elementary schools at K-5. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Jarret Liotta for WestportNow.com
Superintendent of Schools Colleen Palmer also stood by her belief that this was the best educational decision, even in the short term. While she acknowledged that new cost considerations were important, she said she didn’t see issues relating to parity between elementary schools as significant in this case and called it “the best educational plan.”
“Obviously this is a very complex issue (but) we wouldn’t do this if we didn’t believe in the plan,” she said.
Savin, who briefly floated an idea of letting Long Lots School (LLS) sixth graders alone attend BMS, given it looks to be the most overcrowded school with the K-6 plan, said there was no such thing as perfect parity.
“Before this happened we did not have parity (and) we will not have perfect parity under the K-6 model,” she said.
One thing all BOE members appeared to be in agreement on was the division among Westport residents.
“We are a divided community right now,” said Phillips, noting that civility had broken down, particularly via online forums and social media.
“This has been an ordeal for everyone in the community,” Savin said.
Speaking to the CMS Task Force report, Savin was among those questioning whether the building could in fact even be guaranteed to open in September, 2020.
“I’m not comfortable basing my decision for next year on an assumption that we will be back in CMS by next year,” she said, expressing worry over what might be involved with what task force members described as short-term repairs.
The Board of Ed listens to comments from Joe Nadar at the Town Hall auditorium. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Jarret Liotta for WestportNow.com
“I really suspect that past kind of temporary fixes are what got us in this mess to begin with,” she said.
The task force, meanwhile, presented details on repair needs for both the building’s envelope and its mechanics.
“Our report lined up fairly consistently with the peer review that was done,” said member Jay Keenan, who also serves on the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) District 2.
That assessment of the original reports done on the building in the fall, was presented to the BOE on Jan. 28. Findings indicated that much less work was needed than originally thought necessary to make the building usable, but time restrictions — including the town approval process — would make a September, 2019, target date extremely unlikely.
“We believe it is possible to reopen the school with all the short-term repairs,” said Vanessa Valadares, noting they would be “much more than a Band-Aid.”
“But it may not be possible next school year,” she said.
“We definitely believe that 2020 is very possible,” she said.
“We truly believe a design must be done (and) there are a lot of things that need to be addressed by a professional,” she said, noting a two-week window would need to be in place at the end of whatever initial work is done in order to test air quality.
“A designer will need at least a good 10 weeks to get that design,” she said, indicating that town approval process could also eat up a two or three months.
“Construction probably wouldn’t start until August,” Valadares said.
The BOE will now face the question of whether the Board of Finance and the RTM will approve its request for funding for 14 portable classrooms distributed among the five elementary schools to make the K-6 plan work.