By Paul Schott
A $100,000 request by the Board of Education to survey school security, facing mounting criticism over how school officials handled the proposal, was withdrawn from the Representative Town Meeting agenda Tuesday night an hour before the legislative body was scheduled to vote on it.
Elaine Whitney, the school board's chairwoman, sent an email to RTM members informing them of her panel's last-minute decision to withdraw the $100,000 request and instead seek new bids for a security audit of the public schools. The school board, according to the email sent about an hour before the 7:30 p.m. start of the RTM session, now intends to seek bids "comparable in scope" to a proposal by the Manhattan-based security-consulting firm Kroll, which had been endorsed by the Boards of Education and Finance.
Education officials will evaluate the new proposals "as soon as possible," according to Whitney, and then return to the RTM for funding for the planned security review "as soon as practicable."
"Throughout the process, it has been clear that all town and school officials are supportive of making sure that our schools are safe," Whitney said in the email. "We recognize and appreciate the input of the Board of Finance and RTM. We are all on the same team and look forward to engaging the best security firm for the Westport school system."
Despite the backing of the finance board, education officials had faced mounting criticism during the last week for not soliciting other bids for the prospective security survey aside from Kroll's proposal. The proposed $100,000 appropriation for the study failed to gain majority support from the RTM's Finance, Public Protection and Education committees at a joint meeting last week.
The following day, Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon sent an email to parents of the town's public school students, titled "URGENT MESSAGE: WILL Our Schools Be Secure?" He ha urged parents to attend Tuesday's RTM meeting or to write to RTM members to express support for the $100,000 allocation.
Landon's email, however, apparently failed to persuade many of its recipients. Some RTM members told the Westport News that they received dozens of emails from parents indicating their opposition to the Kroll study.
"In all my days on the RTM, I've never seen a Board of Ed or PTA e-mail that has had so many people responding to the RTM in the negative to the proposal being sought for approval," Matthew Mandell, District 1, told the Westport News Tuesday. "Clearly, the Board of Ed saw the writing on the wall."
Meanwhile, a number of RTM members expressed strong backing in interviews after Tuesday's meeting for the education board's new plan to solicit multiple bids for the security study.
"It was the right decision because there was a lot of discomfort and a certain lack of clarity," said Velma Heller, District 9, chairwoman of the RTM's Education Committee. "I'm hoping there will be time now to resolve the issues that have been raised."
Dick Lowenstein, District 5, a Public Protection Committee member, also welcomed the school board decision to seek additional proposals. In recent public meetings, Lowenstein repeatedly argued that education officials should have put the proposed security review out to bid.
"This is good for the town -- it's a chance to reflect on what's the right thing to do," Lowenstein said.
Several key RTM members said the school board's soliciting of new bids for the proposed security audit will improve the probability of the RTM approving funding for the project.
"I think we definitely need a security audit and need some outside view to make sure we're doing everything we can," said Jeff Wieser, District 4, chairman of the RTM's Finance Committee. "It just needs to be done with a better process."
Ahead of the completion of the prospective security audit, the town's new school-security task force -- including municipal, police, fire and education officials -- will continue to examine all of the public school buildings and identify areas and procedures that can be improved immediately, according to Whitney.
"This will allow our schools to benefit from the experience and expertise of all town officials and will advance our mission of providing a safe school community," Whitney added in her e-mail to the RTM.
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