The proposal to use $100,000 in town funds for a security audit of Westport's public schools got an ambivalent reception at a joint meeting of three Representative Town Meeting committees Wednesday night, as a number of RTM members expressed concerns about the vetting process, scope and effectiveness of the proposed study.
Board of Education members last week unanimously approved Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon's request for a $100,000 appropriation to hire the Manhattan-based Kroll Inc. to conduct a security review of the town's eight public schools, as well as the school district's computer learning center on Riverside Avenue. But that spending request must also be approved by the Board of Finance and the RTM.
Education officials originally sought a $50,000 allocation for the security study, which was based on an initial estimate of the cost of a new security audit before the selection of Kroll. The $50,000 spending request was approved Jan. 2 by the finance board, but school officials are now seeking a total appropriation of $100,000 to match the proposed cost of the Kroll study.
Wednesday's meeting of the RTM's Education, Finance and Public Protection committees was the first pitch of the Kroll audit to the RTM. After Landon contacted security-consulting firms and received recommendations on other firms, he told the three committees that he had concluded that Kroll was the best-suited among that group to produce the new security audit.
"They've been in Iraq and Afghanistan, so they know how to deal with external and internal challenges," Landon said. "They operate in concentric circles. They go to the furthest point, they go to the midpoint, they go to the front door and they go to the sides ... They have an incredible track record."
Since the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, school security has dominated Westport education officials' agenda. A number of parents have urged education officials at recent Board of Education meetings to quickly enact more robust security measures at the town's schools.
The Kroll study
Kroll's study would encompass "architectural protective measures" such as entry flow, locks, barriers and doors; "operational guidelines" for school security; and the school district's technical security systems, according to a Jan. 17 Kroll summary of the proposed audit reviewed by RTM members. During their security review, Kroll personnel will spend three full days at Staples High School and two days at each of the school district's seven other schools, according to Landon. On all of those visits, Kroll employees will be accompanied by Westport education staff, while school principals will also make reports on those on-site assessments, he said.
Landon also described Kroll's study as a collaborative effort with Westport municipal and education officials, which will include the participation of the town's Police and Fire departments and the school district's facilities department and business office.
Kroll's security-consulting experience in the U.S. and abroad includes a number of American universities, Federal Reserve banks, federal courthouses, convention centers, hotels, hospitals, airports, sports stadiums, and technology and data centers. It has also studied many elementary and secondary schools in the U.S., including Trevor Day School and Trinity Preschool in Manhattan.
With the backing of First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, education officials agreed last month to expand the security audit to include Town Hall as well. But an evaluation of Town Hall and other municipal buildings such as the Westport Public Library will not be covered by the proposed $100,000 appropriation for the Kroll study. Joseloff has not announced yet whether he intends to seek separate funding to evaluate security at municipal sites.
RTM members split over study
Many RTM members at Wednesday's meeting indicated support for a new review of school safety. But several expressed concerns about the Kroll study. Some representatives said they would like to compare the Kroll audit with other proposals.
"The number is so big and I would be more comfortable seeing another proposal, whether it's by another firm that's done a lot of schools over the past 10 or 20 years or someone's who familiar with our district," said Eileen Flug, District 9.
Because a new security audit would be a service contract, the school district is not obligated to put the security study out to bid, Landon said.
The last security audit of Westport's public schools was conducted in 2007 by the security consulting firm SafirRosetti, which cost about $35,000, according to Landon. The school district implemented several of that study's recommendations, including the installation of buzzer systems at main entrances and surveillance cameras at all of the schools, Landon said.
But education officials ruled out using SafirRosetti (now known as GuidePost Solutions) again, with Landon arguing that it does not have the same "pedigree" as Kroll.
Jack Klinge, a District 7 representative and substitute teacher in the school district, argued that the town had the resources to conduct its own security evaluation of the schools. His recommendations included convening a meeting, which would include Police Chief Dale Call, former town police chiefs, State Police, teachers and school district administrators.
"I do have a real problem with moving ahead with this study at any price level, before other things that I think we can do for nothing and get a lot of information and get it done quickly," he said.
Board of Education Vice Chairman Michael McGovern responded with an emphatic endorsement of Kroll's proposal.
"It's not hyberbole to say that Sandy Hook was the 9/11 for every school district in this country," he said. "We have to look at things differently now. Our response will not be the Westport Patriot Act; it will be what works for our community. We're asking to be exposed. We're asking to be shown our weaknesses, so that we can improve ... It does provide the best possible advice in the world from the best, most knowledgeable firm in the world in this subject."
A number of RTM members also expressed confidence that Kroll is the best choice to conduct the study.
"Going to the best and asking them to do this type of work, to me, is a smart way to do it," said Paul Lebowitz, District 6. "I'm not afraid of the hourly figure because they put a cap on it, we've given them what we're looking for and we're going to invoice them as we go along."
Kroll personnel will charge $175 to $450 per hour for the audit, rates which will be based on the "level, expertise and location of the person performing the work," according to a Jan. 17 Kroll audit summary.
Kroll would "eat" any costs beyond the town's $100,000 outlay for the study, said Board of Education Chairwoman Elaine Whitney.
Armed guards not favored
A number of RTM members also signaled that they have little interest in placing armed guards in the town's schools.
"I'm concerned that any report that comes out talks about arming members in school," said Matthew Mandell, District 1. "I personally am very nervous about going down that road."
Landon responded that he also does not favor placing armed security personnel in the town's public schools.
Jon Zames, the sole member of the public to attend the RTM meeting, strongly supported for the Kroll study. Zames, the father of a Coleytown Elementary School student, has been a vocal proponent at recent school board meetings of implementing more stringent security measures.
"There's a ton of common sense things that we can do," Zames said. "We can do those now. That doesn't mean we can afford to wait though for the best of breed, which is Kroll, who's got a scope and access to a whole bunch of things that we don't have."
The three RTM committees did not take any votes Wednesday on the Kroll audit. The full RTM is set to review at its March 2 meeting the Board of Education's proposed $100,000 allocation for the security audit.
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