Westport candidates find common ground in first debate
WESTPORT — With Election Day only two weeks away, candidates for the Board of Education and Board of Finance faced off Monday night at town hall.
The debate gave candidates a platform to answer a variety of questions, with many centered around the $32 million cost to renovate Coleytown Middle School, and a facilities report outlining a 10-year, $96 million to repair the rest of the town’s schools.
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The event was hosted by the League of Women Voters of Westport and co-sponsored by the Westport Library and the PTA Council of Westport.
Vik Muktavaram, the Republican Town Committee’s nominee for BOE, said there needs to be a collaborative process with the funding bodies in town for the longtime maintenance of the district’s buildings.
“When it comes to strategic management that work needs to be dedicated outside the Board of Education,” he said, adding this could help bring the educational focus back to the BOE.
Lee Goldstein, the Democratic Town Committee’s BOE nominee, said understanding the root cause of Coleytown’s closure could prevent a similar situation from occurring at other buildings. She noted communication was also key.
“For years people in the building — parents, students and faculty — have been raising concerns about Coleytown Middle,” Goldstein said. “They were ignored or suppressed. First we need to know what went wrong.”
Republican BOE nominee Liz Heyer said strategic infrastructure management would ensure the town does not face another $32 million surprise.
“We need a school facilities capital expenditures plan that feeds into the town’s capital expenditures plan,” she said. “I think this is an area where we can either delegate to our town or third party so we can free up the Board of Education to focus on academic and student well-being priorities.”
While the schools’ facilities were a main topic, hiring a new superintendent was also a hot-button issue.
“First and foremost, whatever criteria we use to hire this person I think the Board of Education needs to make it public,” said Democratic nominee Youn Su Chao. “This is so that the Board of Ed, and stakeholders throughout town can be a part of keeping our district leadership team accountable.”
She noted the education board needs to be prepared to fire a superintendent if the match does not work.
“I think we’re all looking for the same person, someone who’s trustworthy and ready to take our district to the next level,” Chao said.
The unavoidable topic of redistricting also came up, with all the candidates saying the right teacher-team models are required, and none favored the current options. All BOE candidates also stated they supported later start times for schools.
On the Board of Finance side, candidates included incumbent Democrats Sheri Gordon and Nancie Dupier and RTC nominees Jay DesMarteau and James Foster. Republican candidate Michael Guadarrama was not in attendance due to withdrawing from the race on Oct. 10.
The candidates fielded questions about prioritizing capital funding requests, keeping taxes down and the town’s ability to overcome a potential recession.
“I think if you’ve looked at what we’ve done over the last four years, we’ve made major investments in our town,” Gordon said, noting major improvements at Compo Beach and the Westport Library.
Despite these improvements, she said the BOF now understands there needs to be a focus on all of the town’s buildings, not just the schools.
“We need to be a better shepherd of our assets,” she said. “That’s one of our jobs as the Board of Finance to look at all the numbers, analyze and ask all the hard questions.”
When asked about weathering a recession, DesMarteau said the town has done historically well in handling financial hardships and is in a good position to potentially do so again.
“As long as we offer the right mix of services better than our competition in a recession, we will be fine,” DesMarteau said.
Foster said he wasn’t overly concerned about a recession, but believed there needed to be a bigger focus on looking three to four years out regarding the town budget.
Meanwhile, Dupier said the BOF has worked hard to ensure the town is prepared for another recession, adding Westport has the third-lowest tax rate in Fairfield County as well as $25 million in reserves.
“We’re well-versed to face the headwinds that we know are there and will be coming,” Dupier said. “We have resources in this town to help us weather the storm.”
The League of Women Voters’ next debate will take place Oct. 28 at 7 p.m. in town hall, and include the Planning and Zoning Commission, the Board of Assessment Appeals and the Zoning Board of Appeals.