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With police role ensured, financiers back $50K more for school security study

Updated 11:42 am, Thursday, February 14, 2013

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  • Security consultant Kroll Inc. has proposed spending three days examining Staples High School. All other town schools, including Kings Highway Elementary, above, would undergo two-day evaluations. Photo: Paul Schott / Westport News
    Security consultant Kroll Inc. has proposed spending three days examining Staples High School. All other town schools, including Kings Highway Elementary, above, would undergo two-day evaluations. Photo: Paul Schott

 

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The Board of Finance on Wednesday unanimously approved an additional $50,000 for a proposed school-security audit, after receiving guarantees from education officials that the study would include active participation by local emergency-management officials.

Initially, $50,000 for the study was approved last month by the finance board, but school officials sought another $50,000 to finance the overall cost of $100,000 for a security review by the Manhattan-based firm Kroll Inc. The security study would examine the town's eight public schools, as well as the school district's computer learning center on Riverside Avenue.

While the proposed audit has garnered broad support from town officials and parents, it has still faced an exacting public review. Finance board members expressed misgivings last week about appropriating the additional $50,000, after learning that Westport police were not consulted before school officials chose Kroll to conduct the study.

Those concerns apparently were addressed when Board of Education Chairwoman Elaine Whitney reported that Kroll's study now "codifies" a significant role for police and fire officials.

"This is a community effort and there'll be many parts," Whitney said. "It'll be a lengthy process to conduct this [study] and to implement what's best for our town as a result of this."

During the Board of Finance's evaluation of the additional $50,000 allocation, Westport police have asked to take on a more active and prominent role in the preparing the study.

"We're not really willing to just sit back and wait for somebody to come in to talk to me or the deputy chief," said Police Chief Dale Call. "We're looking for a lot more input than that."

While he acknowledged a need for town and school officials to review school security after the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Call appeared reticent about endorsing Kroll to carry out that project. He advocated strongly, however, for any new security review to assess information-sharing practices among education officials, police and other town departments.

"We may know something, but the school system doesn't know it," Call added. "The school system may see something that on its own seems fairly innocuous, but we know a little bit more. That's what this study really needs to take a look at."

Finance board members backed Call's recommendations.

"It's really important to see a partnership between you and Dale," finance board member Janis Collins told Landon. "Developing a structured communications system between the different operations is critical for the safety of our children."

Collins' board colleague, John Pincavage, also called for sustained collaboration between police and education officials.

"The coordination and follow-up is going to be almost more important than study," he said. "Unless you continue the dialogue and have a close relationship, you might as well not have the study."

To foster closer interdepartmental cooperation, education and municipal officials have formed a school-security task force, which would work with Kroll while it conducts the security audit, according to Landon. The task force held its first meeting Wednesday; its participants included Landon, Call, First Selectman Gordon Joseloff and Fire Chief Andrew Kingsbury, according to Landon.

Lingering questions

After the finance board's approval, the proposed school-security study now faces review by the full Representative Town Meeting, whose approval is also needed for the school district to secure the $100,000 appropriation. The RTM could vote on the proposed $100,000 allocation at its next meeting on March 5.

The RTM's Education, Finance and Public Protection Committees began a review of the proposed security audit at a Jan. 30 meeting, where the study received an ambivalent reception.

Several RTM members also voiced concerns about the Kroll study at the finance board meeting.

"I think the study would be done better by our own people and not by Kroll," Don Bergmann, District 1, said Wednesday. "I think the idea of a consultant is not necessary and there's substantial potential that it could be detrimental."

Bergmann suggested that the $100,000 requested for the audit be redirected to other sources, possibly for mental-health programming.

Board of Finance Chairman Avi Kaner disagreed with Bergmann.

"One of the benefits of having a consultant working hand-in-hand with our internal people is the ability to provide outside perspective, particularly about best practices that they see elsewhere," Kaner said. "Consultants can make recommendations that are not popular."

Bergmann's RTM colleague Lee Arthurs, District 8, recommended that the town solicit security-study proposals from other firms.

"I'm still a little bit uncomfortable that there's only one written proposal," Arthurs said. "I know there've been some parties that have sent emails. I know Dr. Landon has spoken to some of these parties. I would think it makes sense to contact these parties and give them a chance to put in proposals before the [next] RTM meeting or whatever date you suggest."

Besides Kroll, the school district has not received any other written proposals to produce a new security audit, according to Landon. The superintendent told the finance board that he has spoken with other interested security firms.

RTM member Dick Lowenstein, District 5, argued that education officials should have conducted a formal bidding process for the security audit to conform with school district policies.

Whitney responded that the school district was not obligated to bid out the audit because the study falls under a personnel-services category.

Despite his vote for the additional $50,000 funding request, Kaner said he also would have preferred a bidding process for the school-security audit.

"It would've improved transparency," he said. "By looking at the other bids, you might have liked things you saw in the inferior bids that you could then have asked Kroll to incorporate. Going forward, please keep that in mind. It will make these questions go away and you'll end up with a better product."

pschott@bcnnew.com; 203-255-4561, ext. 118; twitter.com/paulschott