The Board of Education's request for $100,000 to conduct a new security audit of the town's public schools failed to gain majority support Thursday from three key Representative Town Meeting committees, as members of several RTM committees voiced concerns about the lack of a formal bidding process for the project.
The proposed allocation garnered two yes votes, one no vote and two abstentions from the Education Committee. Four Public Protection Committee members abstained, while another representative on that panel voted in favor. Two Finance Committee members voted to back the $100,000 allocation, three opposed it, while another three abstained.
Those votes are not binding, but underscore misgivings expressed by many RTM members about education officials' process for selecting the security-consulting firm Kroll to conduct a new security review of the town's eight public schools.
During the joint meeting of the three committees Thursday night, RTM members repeatedly pressed Board of Education Chairwoman Elaine Whitney on why the school district had not sought multiple bids for the initiative. While Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon contacted a number of security-consulting professionals, Kroll was the only group to submit a "traditional, formal, written" proposal, according to Whitney.
"The pushback you are getting more than anything is that the process here is not kosher for a lot of people," said Gil Nathan, District 9, a Finance Committee member. "People are pretty unhappy with the process."
After Landon recommended Kroll, the Board of Education on Jan. 22 unanimously endorsed the proposed $100,000 town outlay for the Manhattan-based firm's security survey. Whitney argued Thursday that school officials had the legal authority not to issue a request for proposals for the security assessment, because that project would constitute a personnel-services contract. That explanation, however, did not appear to persuade many RTM members.
"It's suggestive of a problem with the process," said Paul Rossi, District 5, an Education Committee member. "It's just good fiscal prudence to have gone and started with bids before you came to this body. It's become sort of a public-relations problem for you now."
Despite RTM members' criticism, Whitney maintained that Kroll is best-suited to conduct the prospective security study. Describing their approach as "unique," she argued that Kroll's work would extend beyond solely an evaluation of the public schools' physical infrastructure and also encompass the school district's security policies and procedures.
"We're getting a lot more value and a lot more depth and detail," she said.
Whitney ruled out soliciting more bids for the project because of "the concern that there's so much information in the public domain regarding price and the broad scope that it would be very difficult to get meaningful bids."
But she acknowledged that had the security study already been bid out, "this approval process would have been much more smooth, because it would have increased your comfort level."
If the full RTM turns down the $100,000 funding request, education officials would not pursue the proposed audit, Whitney added.
Whitney was the only Board of Education member to attend Thursday's joint committees' meeting.
Some RTM members were more receptive to the prospective appropriation for the new school-security review.
"We've got a great school system and a great Board of Ed," said Bill Meyer, District 3, an Education Committee member. "If we turned it down, it could be a big embarrassment for you. I think we ought to give you a pass, because you've done such a great job in the past."
Westport Parent-Teacher Association Council Co-President Ginny McGovern also indicated support Thursday for town funding of the Kroll study.
"I think it's something you need to prioritize and come to a collective agreement on," she said. "It really is a completely different matter than all the other things you've ever discussed. It's about student and staff safety."
The school board's request for the $100,000 school security audit will be reviewed and likely voted on by the full RTM at a meeting set for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in Town Hall.
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