By James Lomuscio
It happened a generation ago, but the 1991 death of an 8-year-old Westport girl run over by her school bus still resonated at tonight’s Board of Education meeting.
School board member Jeannie Smith and Michael Gordon along with Schools Superintendent Elliott Landon listen to audience comments tonight. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com
At issue was a proposed cut in Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon’s 2016-17 $113.4 million school budget that would do away with Westport’s school bus monitor program except for special education students.
Landon, seeking to save $125,000 in the budget, said the monitors were no longer needed because, among other things, technology has made school buses safer.
Another reason, he said, is that a number of the monitors have retired and it is hard to find replacements. This left only one-quarter of the elementary school buses with monitors, which he called inequitable.
The cut helps bring his budget in at a 2.03 percent increase over the current year, not too far from the Board of Finance’s suggested 1.5 percent increase.
“I proposed it last year and the board decided not to do it,” Landon said. “It (now) seemed a good time to save the money and run our buses the way every other district in Connecticut does it, and that is without monitors.”
While his suggestion got a nod from board member Mark Mathias, who said bus advancements could keep children safe, a number of parents argued, some passionately, to keep the monitor program.
A number of audience members, including RTM Distirict 5 member John Suggs (r), spoke out against the school bus monitor cut. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com
It has been in place for 23 years and began in response to the December 1991 death of 8-year-old Holly Finley. She was run over by her school bus when the drawstring of her jacket was caught on the bus on Evergreen Avenue.
“Please let Holly rest in peace,” said John Suggs, a District 5 member of the Representative Town Meeting (RTM).
“Every time you bring it up, it serves to re traumatize our community, and we have to go back and relive that tragic day. This is $125,000 he is recommending to be removed from this budget, from a $113 million budget.
“I agree it is an equity issue, but every school bus should have monitors,” Suggs added, vowing that as an RTM member he would not vote to approve any school budget that did not include monitors.
Suggs said Stephen Rubin, a former RTM member who had served as one of the original school bus monitors with former First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, was watching the meeting from his retirement home in Charleston, S.C.
Michael Gordon, school board chairman, later said that Rubin had sent him an email urging the board not to support the cut.
School board member Karen Klein also spoke out against eliminating bus monitors. She stressed they are needed since there more distracted motorists on the road via cell phone use, plus “increased traffic on our roads.”
“I also see students crossing the street, and it worries me about students getting off on the Post Road,” Klein said.
“I feel there is more being asked of our (bus) drivers. I would still be in favor of continuing it as is. Something is better than nothing. We need to keep the children safe, and I just feel this keeps them safer.”
Jennifer Johnson, a Distict 9 RTM membert who also serves as co-director of the Westport Weston Transit District, said that despite technological improvements,“We can’t rely that the technology will be there.”
Johnson described what happened to her tenth grade daughter as she rushed to get off the bus, and the bus driver turned to the right, shutting he doors, not realizing she was there.
“The bus took off and threw her to the ground,” she said. “It all happened in an instant. …He was a veteran bus driver. This is the situation in my neighborhood where we lost Holly.”
A woman who only identified herself as the parent of two children at Saugatuck Elementary School, spoke in favor of keeping the program and expanding it.
“To me it is just fundamental that young children have supervision on the bus,” she said. “On a practical level, you’re going to have more parents wanting to drive their children to school.”
As this item came to a close, Gordon asked Elio Longo, school business, administrator to analyze how much it would cost to have a bus monitor system for all elementary schools.
The school board also discussed and heard comments about Landon’s other proposed cuts in his proposed budget: eliminating team leaders and liaisons at the middle school level, saving $128,355, and eliminating four, third grade paraprofessionals, saving $108,000.
Landon’s proposed budget also calls for reducing the number of grade level assistants at Staples High School from four to two.
All board members spoke against the cuts, saying that they would have a direct impact on the students.
“I’m not in favor of removing something that seems like a good idea,” Jeannie Smith, school board vice chairwoman, said in support of keeping third grade paraprofessionals.
“This is the one thing in the classroom with a direct impact on the student,” Gordon said. “This is where we stand as a board, from my point of view.”
Gordon said the board plans to vote all of the cuts in Landon’s budget at its Monday, Feb. 1 meeting.
Editor’s Note; This story has been updated to show the budget request was for $113.4 million, not $118.4 million.