By James Lomuscio
UPDATE After more than three and a half hours of debate, division and public discussion, Westport’s Representative Town Meeting (RTM) in a special meeting tonight voted 28 to 3 for a $1 million appropriation for the rental and placement of six modular classrooms at Bedford Middle School (BMS).
The lights were on in parts of Coleytown Middle School early today. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Anna-Liisa Nixon for WestportNow.com
The RTM vote upheld Wednesday night’s Board of Finance unanimous vote amending the Board of Education’s request for $4 million for 14 portables at the town’s elementary schools.
The portables would have reconfigured the K-5 elementary schools to K-6 to accommodate Coleytown Middle School (CMS) students displaced by illness-causing air quality issues, including mold,
Tonight’s vote, however, maintained the established sixth through eighth grade middle school setup. It was also a rebuke of Schools Superintendent Colleen Palmer’s K-6 solution that had been approved by a 4 to 3 school board vote.
Parents who spoke seemed evenly divided. One side said the finance board and the RTM had no business making educational decisions.
Proponents of the amendment established by the finance board said keeping the modular classrooms at BMS would be less disruptive and expedite the reopening of CMS by September 2020.
They also said there would be less of a security risk at the elementary schools.
“There are no losers coming out of this vote tonight,” said RTM member Jack Klinge before the vote. “We’re all going to be winners, and we’re going to make it work.”
Klinge said he was guided by the phrase “do no harm, and that means staying with six through eight and having an extra year to plan.”
“I predict we’ll open Coleytown Middle in September of 2020,” he said.
Since CMS was shuttered n September after a number of students and staff became sick due to mold, its students have been relocated to BMS and Staples High School.
Lauren Karpf, chairwoman of the RTM’s education committee, said the $1 million appropriation to keep the students at BMS “is about funding the best strategic plan for our town.”
“I received hundreds of emails,” she said. “The K-6 plan does not work for our schools. A sixth grader has outgrown a K-5 model. … We need to keep our schools intact.”
RTM members Mark Friedman and Lee Arthurs spoke out against the $1 million appropriation. Friedman said the Community Advisory Committee had weighed in against what he called a “mega-middle school,” which he compared to going to LaGuardia Airport.
“Adding 55 percent more students to Bedford is shocking,” Friedman said.
Parent Becky Martin excoriated the Board of Finance (BOF), saying it “decided to thwart a well thought out plan.”
Parent Elizabeth Williams said the BOF “should not be making educational programming decisions” and denounced members’ comments Wednesday night as showing “ignorance of basic educational practices.”
She added: “You’re trading our kids for tax dollars, and it’s unacceptable,” explaining later in an email that the BOF acted “without understanding that this will be many student’s entire middle school experience, not one year. “
Veteran RTM member Lois Schine said that having 14 portables spread out among the town’s elementary schools would compromise school security that the town and schools have been working on and fine tuning since Sandy Hook.
“I don’t understand how you can expect to protect 14 modulars,” she said.
Following the vote, the RTM also voted unanimously to authorize the Board of Education to apply to the state Commissioner of Administrative Services to accept or to reject one or more school construction grants for the rental of six portable classrooms at BMS.
The RTM also voted 32 to 1 for the town’s Public Site and Building Commission to be the in charge of rental and installation of the portable classrooms at BMS.
In addition, the legislative body voted unanimously to authorize the preparation of schematic drawings and specifications for the portable classrooms.
This story has been updated to clarify remarks by Elizabeth Williams.