New communications link proposed to upgrade Westport schools' security

With the start of a new academic year earlier in the day, an update on security at the town's schools given Monday night by Superintendent of Schools Elliot Landon to the Board of Education included a proposal for a new communications system between schools and emergency officials.

Priorities in upgrading school security were to replace all the locks on classroom doors districtwide, as well as doors in areas where larger concentrations of people take place, he said. It also included covering first-floor windows at all schools with security film and hiring a new security director for the school district.

This was part of a security project completed during the last school year at a cost of $1.4 million, or a net cost of $1.2 million with grant money included in the financing.

The next phase, Landon told the school board, will be to enhance security by installing a new communications system linked directly to first responders in case of an intruder emergency. The cost for the system's radios, Landon said, is $750,000.

The school security measures are being implemented based on recommendations in a report by the Kroll consulting firm. Kroll's $100,000 survey was done in the wake of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown that claimed 26 lives in December 2012.

Landon, in his update, said the new door locks are designed to provide an extra measure of security "should there be an internal or external threat" at any of the town's eight schools.

"You just close the door and it automatically locks and intruders can't get in and teachers and students can take measures to get out of harm's way," Landon added.

The security film applied to first-floor windows and doors, manufactured by 3M, cost $500,000 to install and can withstand external threats. "You can't kick it in or use a baseball bat -- the glass won't break, it will only crumble," Landon explained. This film also allows more time for officials to ward off intruders, he said.

"I'm glad to see the progress with the film," said Board of Education member Mark Mathias. "We are protecting the children and that's our job, as well as to educate them."

The school system has also hired a new director of facilities and security, Theodore Hunyadi, who will be paid an annual salary of $125,000, according to Marge Cion, director of human resources.

The job replaces the previous position of director of facilities, said board Chairwoman Elaine Whitney. "So bringing on Mr. Hunyadi will not result in a net change to our staffing levels," she said Tuesday.

Hunyadi had previously been employed as the director of maintenance services at Fairfield University and was on the crisis management team at both the university and at Fairfield Prep, Cion said.

They had hoped to have Hunyadi on board in July, but the hiring process took longer than planned and Hunyadi will start in the job Sept. 2, she added.

As for the new radio communications system, Landon said it is designed to cut down on the time it would take to alert first responders to any threat, internal or external, at any school. "Now someone has to have to get to a phone and call 911," he said. However, the radio system will "instantaneously alert" first responders giving those in potential danger "time we never had before."

The board unanimously approved authorizing Landon to request the $750,000 funding for the radios from the Board of Finance.

Budgets, past and future

In other news, the school system finished last fiscal year with a $930,000 positive fund balance in its health insurance fund account. An anticipated shortfall in that 2013-14 budget earlier in the year -- at one point, projected as high as $2 million -- had touched off a fiscal scramble.

Landon also spoke about the school system's five-year operating budget forecast, which would include fiscal years 2015 to 2020. "We really thought long and hard," he said about what the percentage increase for the school budget would be for each year. It now stands at approximately $109 million.

He said this includes the fact that employee contracts and insurance costs annually consume 85 percent of the budget and also takes into account the cost for fuel and maintenance of buildings.

Landon said he anticipates an increase from 4.5 percent to 5 percent in the budget each of the five years. "That's fiscally conservative," he said. "The future is a tremendous unknown and we'd rather be safe than sorry."