State of the Town details challenges ahead for Westport
WESTPORT — Traffic, schools, and the indirect impact of one local controversy were discussed Sunday afternoon when the joint Rotary Clubs hosted a State of the Town event at the Westport Library.
With budget season unfolding, First Selectman Jim Marpe and Board of Education Chair Candice Savin respectively shared detailed remarks about the town and school system with around 150 attendees, including many members of both the Rotary Club of Westport and the Westport Sunrise Rotary, answering audience questions as well.
“There have been some significant challenges,” Savin said of this year’s school system odyssey, which has included a search for a new superintendent and the $32 million renovation of a temporarily closed Coleytown Middle School.
“We live in a community with high expectations,” she said, explaining that ongoing investments in infrastructure, leadership and human capital remain important.
She outlined a range of successes throughout the district, including student academic achievements and new focuses on social and emotional health, including the new RULER program and the pending discussion of moving the school start time forward.
At the same time, Savin noted the upcoming budget was “shaping up to be a unique challenge,” with her board striving to balance “high-quality education” for students with a fiscal responsibility.
With student enrollment declining, she was asked how that played into her work.
“It’s challenging to manage all of our buildings and our staffing in an environment of declining enrollment,” she said, especially in middle school where the board wants to maintain a team-teaching model.
Savin said more answers will likely come with the hiring of a new superintendent, expected to happen in the spring.
Likewise, Marpe touted some of the town’s best accomplishments this year, including improved railroad parking, advanced technology initiatives, a strong financial standing, improved beach access for people with disabilities, and environmental sustainability work.
As for challenges, Marpe said he hoped to confront various ongoing ones, including traffic and pedestrian concerns, by beginning a series of district-level meetings with residents.
“We’ll never be able to eliminate the volume of traffic that passes through at rush hour,” he said, but suggested there may be specific ways to make changes neighborhood by neighborhood.
“We’d like to know what makes sense in a particular neighborhood. ... The more we get on a neighborhood basis, the more that helps as we plan and go for the funding,” he said.
Several people wanted to talk about the recent ballyhoo involving the Westport Museum for History and Culture — the former Westport Historical Society — which alienated many long-time supporters this month after announcing it was renaming one of its wings for a new contributor and displacing the name of the original.
With several postings on the issue, Westport News columnist Dan Woog’s popular “06880” blog served as a busy forum the past couple of weeks for a barrage of angry reader comments chastising the nonprofit.
While he acknowledged there was a billing issue with the museum that’s currently under investigation, in which it asked the town to cover some personnel costs it shouldn’t have as part of their joint work on the First Light event, Marpe emphasized it was a private nonprofit.
“We recognize as a town that we have to take great care with how we work with private organizations,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we won’t be supportive.”
“They are not affiliated with the town,” he said, though Marpe noted he stepped in and “tried to exercise some quiet diplomacy” to abate the furor.
Marpe said, however, he was mostly troubled by the tone of the comments that were put online and sent to his office.
“The tone that a lot of the emails and comments took was not what Westport should be all about,” he said, calling it cyberbullying.
“Frankly, some of the comments I read were as strong an example of cyberbullying as you could expect,” he said, noting the irony that Westport schools try to teach students about the issue of cyberbullying. “Some of the things you’re saying are impacting people’s lives. Some of these people you’re talking about live down the street from you (and) I found some of the commentary to be just wrong.”
Ironically, Jeffrey Weiser, a past Rotary president and deputy moderator of the Representative Town Meeting, who moderated the event, noted many of the written questions from audience members involved concerns about bullying and related stressors among Westport students.
Asked about those issues, Savin said, “I think we as a community, if we model good behavior, that helps a lot.”