'We've fared very well': Westport doing well despite pandemic

WESTPORT — While the impact of the pandemic continues to redefine various elements of life in Westport, officials highlighted positive aspects of current events and things to come at the annual State of the Town address Sunday afternoon.

Hosted by The Westport Library, in cooperation with both the Sunrise and Westport Rotary Clubs, the fourth annual event included overviews from First Selectman Jim Marpe and Board of Education chairwoman Candice Savin.

Unlike past years, it was done virtually, though the two spoke from the stage at the library, with Eileen Lavigne Flug, town attorney and past president of Westport Rotary Club, moderating.

“Westport finds itself in a very difficult place … but miraculously, and in many ways, I feel the state of the town is even better,” Marpe said.

With budget season on the horizon, he noted the town remains financially healthy.

“So far we’ve fared very well,” he said.

“There are still a lot of vacant storefronts and offices around downtown (but) the town finances are in a good place. Our tax collections are at or ahead of prior years… and our pension and investment funds are doing very well, even without investments in GameStop,” he joked.

Marpe said that while the Board of Finance has asked for a budget “as if life was back to normal”—and that his departments have been prudent—there are still additional reserves being set aside for COVID-related costs should they be needed.

Savin, meanwhile, said the district hired seven new elementary school teachers this year to accommodate the largest single-year influx of elementary-age students the town has ever seen.

“We’re keeping a close eye on it,” she said.

There are 217 new-to-district students entering K-5, nearly double from last year. It’s largely due to families moving to town from New York City because of the pandemic.

“Certainly the board would not want to employ more people than needed,” she said, but cited the overriding need for “human capital.”

“We must continue to invest in that talent,” Savin said.

She said there are several “clear budget priorities” this year, including as-yet-unknown healthcare costs for employees and the 10-year school facility improvement plan.

“We must not take our foot off the gas on facilities investment,” she said, also sharing about the long-awaited reopening of Coleytown Middle School this month following its prolonged closure due to mold and water-damage issues.

Both officials spoke about the impact of Black Lives Matter protests this summer and how both school and town are striving to improve things as they relate to various minority groups.

“We are committed to focus more assertively on hiring and mentoring a more diverse workforce for the town,” Marpe said.

“I think our recruiting has to become a little more sophisticated,” he said, noting the importance of the mentoring process to retain people and help them feel they’re part of the community. “It’s not just enough to try to find more people, it’s also about making sure that once on board, their career development is as strong as possible.”

Marpe also pointed out the new formation of a Civilian Review Panel aimed at responding to complaints involving the town’s EMS, fire and police departments.

Savin said the school districts will hire a consultant to oversee “a full equity study of the district.”

She said they were motivated to take action because of national events, along with private—and “very painful personal testimony”—from students about issues they have faced involving bias.

The study will look at how the district is doing in terms of student experience, curriculum, as well as policy and procedures, Savin said.

“I’m looking forward to the results of the study because that will help us be more directed and focused in our work going forward,” she said.

Both Marpe and Savin paid homage to various people in their respective departments, particularly as their jobs have morphed with the pandemic.

“Our new superintendent Tom Scarice came on board this past summer, and what a time to start as a new leader,” Savin said. “He quickly gained the trust of our parent community by communicating effectively and transparently about his decisions … I’m really looking forward to seeing what he can do when there’s not a pandemic.”

Along with praising the town workers, residents and business owners for their creativity in coping with the crisis, Marpe also acknowledged the loss of 26 residents to COVID.

When asked about the vaccine roll out, he pointed out that Connecticut is only receiving 46,000 doses a week, but has a total population of 3.5 million.

“You do the math,” he said, acknowledging the logjam at the national and state levels making it a challenge.

Marpe said in addition to his worries about health and economic issues related to COVID, he also said concerns about cyber attacks on the town were very real and ominous.

“We see evidence of that every day — of attempts to hack into the town’s information systems,” he said. “It’s a never-ending battle that’s become more sophisticated every year.”