Another $267K approved for Coleytown remediation

WESTPORT — The Board of Finance approved a special appropriation of close to $270,000 to the Board of Education for issues relating to Coleytown Middle School on Wednesday night, but they were not terribly happy about it.

In particular, financiers had questions about some tech purchases, some mold-damaged musical instruments, and a commissioned $20,386 review of published air-quality reports paid to the legal firm of Shipman & Goodwinn LLP for reasons that were not entirely clear.

“There was a request to Shipman & Goodwinn for a review of the response” to the air quality investigations, said Anthony Buono, acting superintendent of schools.

He explained it was commissioned by former Superintendent of Schools Colleen Palmer and involved an assessment of the various air quality reports that had been completed and already made public.

“At this time we do not have a final report,” he said, noting it was due in mid-May.

“What’s the purpose for the report?” asked BOF member Lee Caney.

“We wanted to take a look at the various reports that had come out and find out what had been done,” said BOE Chairman Mark Mathias, saying he thought it might involve attorney-client privilege, but was not sure about the details and wanted to get more specifics from the law firm before he elaborated.

“What exactly is there to be privileged ... if all the reports are public?” asked BOF member Sheri Gordon.

“I still don’t understand,” said BOF Chairman Brian Stern. “It just seems odd to me.”

“I worry about the incrementality. ... I fear there was a practice of spending before the actual requirement,” said Stern, following questions about additional costs for musical instruments and Chromebooks that needed to be replaced.

Mathias also rose to the defense of his board and school staff in relation to the mold crisis and subsequent closing of Coleytown.

“We were criticized for not acting fast enough,” he said. “We were criticized for doing things before they were well-thought out.”

“I think all of the decisions that were made were made with the best intentions. ... There was a lot going on. ... I don’t have all the answers to that, but I will stand by my organization,” he said.

“I don’t think you treat us like a blank check,” Stern told Mathias. “On the other hand, you shouldn’t treat us like a rubber stamp either.”

“I don’t agree that the right steps were taken,” Caney said, noting it wasn’t a valid excuse to say they did their best. “I think you have to take a hard look at what happened ... what happened through the whole process. I think you should really think about what went wrong.”

In the end the BOF chose to approve the appropriation largely to move matters forward, asking school officials to provide the information later.

Gordon abstained from an otherwise unanimous vote on the $267,658, which included various professional services and building maintenance costs.

“I’m going to abstain because I don’t think we have all the information,” she said.

Over $1 million has been spent on the last two phases of mold remediation efforts at Coleytown, according to the Westport Public Schools’ chief financial officer Elio Longo

In the 2016-17 period, the district spent $710,211 on mold remediation and related professional services at Coleytown. While in the current 2018-19 remediation phase, the schools have shelled out $942,226 with another $21,664 projected to be spent soon, Longo said in April.

The finance board also gave its OK for the Shellfish Program to use $33,850 in its account to purchase a new boat for the Police Marine Division to use in policing Westport’s shellfish beds.

“It’s going to be used by the police department to conduct shellfish enforcement,” said Deputy Chief Sam Arciola.

“There’s tremendous year-round activity with commercial boats,” he said, noting the department also keeps tabs on around 800 individuals annually who have recreational shellfishing permits for the water around Westport.

“They help us a lot,” Conservation Director Alicia Mozian said of the police. “They’re really our shellfish wardens.”

All the money in the account, which is currently at around $90,000, is collected through shellfish permit fees.