WESTPORT — In the month since the Board of Education voted to keep town’s sixth-graders in the elementary schools next year, residents and officials have criticized a new cost built into the plan: $3.6 million for portable classrooms.

“I’m completely flabbergasted by both this presentation and the numbers that I’ve seen,” Representative Town Meeting member Christine Meiers Schatz said at the Jan. 22 Board of Education meeting.

When the BOE voted on the K-6 plan on Dec. 17 in light of the closure of Coleytown Middle School, the projected cost for additional portable classrooms at the elementary schools was between $700,000 and $800,000, Meiers Schatz said. The new estimated cost is much higher and should force the board to re-evaluate the plan, she said, a request repeated by several other residents and town officials.

“You guys voted on a plan that is not what the plan is anymore. You guys voted on numbers that — I mean, it’s a joke — and I have to say, as a taxpayer, I’m really offended,” PTA Council Co-President Carolyn Caney said. “I’m really losing faith in this Board of Education and in this superintendent that this is how you guys make decisions, without all of the information.”

The new cost was presented by Paul Drummey, the BOE’s consultant on the project to add modular classrooms to the elementary schools. The $3.6 million is the “worst-case-scenario budget” needed to outfit the elementary schools with 13 portable classrooms for the next five years, Drummey said.

The town will need to work on an aggressive timeline to acquire the local and state approvals and grant eligibility necessary to lease the portables and get them in place by the start of next school year, he said.

A document on the Coleytown Middle School website notes the locations of each portable at the elementary schools, and maps out locations for two portable classrooms to be added to both Greens Farms Elementary School and Saugatuck Elementary School.

Long Lots Elementary School, Coleytown Elementary School, and Kings Highway Elementary School are each slated to have three portables added for next year, but Drummey said Long Lots will now have four portables. That extra portable brought the total cost from $3.4 million to $3.6 million.

“As a board member, I’m feeling a little frustrated right now because when we voted on this, the number of portables was much lower and the cost was much lower, and when we voted on this we were looking at 30-month rentals. So, I feel a little bit like our hand is kind of being forced at this point and I wanted to express that,” BOE member Karen Kleine said.

“The price tag is much bigger than we had been looking at,” BOE member Elaine Whitney added.

Superintendent Colleen Palmer explained the increased cost, saying she originally thought three portables the district currently owns could be used for next year. However, those facilities were later deemed too old to use for next year.

“Having the longest timeframe obviously is the most expensive. I don’t know if we’re going to need the five years. I would think by the time we’re going out to bid, we’d be better informed about the timeframe, which would greatly reduce the cost,” Palmer said, referencing the pending request for proposal for the 13 portables.

BOE member Jeannie Smith said it’s confusing to consider the $3.6 million portable cost at the same time the Coleytown Middle School Task Force is working to determine the viability of returning to the defunct middle school next year.

Vanessa Valadares, a resident and the task force chair, said the group will have a report ready by the end of January.

The $3.6 million cost will need to gain RTM and Board of Finance approval for the plan to go into forward. Finance board member Sheri Gordon said the plan needs to be more specific for the BOF to properly evaluate it as fiduciaries of the town.

“I’ve been saying for five months now — we need to hear the costs. We need to understand, is this one year, two years, three, four or five? We’re just being told to trust the process. ... It can’t just be ‘trust us, it’s going to work out,’ because that’s not going to fly.”

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