Westport school board looks for town collaboration in facilities

WESTPORT — The Board of Education and Westport officials agreed collaboration was needed to address the 10-year, $96 million plan to repair the town’s schools, but opinions varied on what this could look like.

The plan was prepared by Antinozzi Associates and outlines work to be done at seven of the town’s eight schools, with Coleytown Middle School excluded. The BOE discussed on Monday using this report to create the district’s five-year capital forecast, and a recommendation of over $60 million in repairs in that time frame.

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“In the interest of the school district, the Board of Education and the town, there should not be competing interests as we review the Antinozzi report,” schools chief financial officer Elio Longo said.

Work ranges from $5.37 million at Coleytown Elementary School to $32.79 million at Staples High School. The first year outlines a total of $12.54 million dollars in work to be done, with the school’s operating budget able to cover around $500,000, Longo said.

“The capital budget of the BOE is just one piece of the total responsibility of the town,” he added. “Again, my opinion is they’re not competing interests. We should find some overarching goal here.”

To increase collaboration, the town has already earmarked $200,000 in its budget to hire a facilities and project manager. The Consolidated Facilities Staff Working Group has also been established to review facilities for the town and school district.

With the recommended spending weighted heavily in the early years, Longo said the town will have to find a comfort level on what to bond.

“It will perhaps smooth out the investment of $100 million either over 10 years, or 10-plus years,” he said.

Ted Hunyadi, director of facilities and security for schools, said assistance would be needed for “soft costs” of larger projects, adding it was important to build a better bridge with the BOE to have its needs quantified.

“I need to know the type of resources needed to deliver curriculum in the educational learning environment we want over the next five to 10 years,” he said, noting items currently in the report could potentially change.

Though Hunyadi said there were no real surprises in the report, he pointed out some of the numbers were reported too high while others were too low.

“It’s still a work in progress,” he said of the report.

BOE members pitched different ideas to address incorporating the report into the district’s five-year plan. BOE member Karen Kleine said she favored more representation of the school board on the Consolidated Facilities Staff Working Group.

“We’ve only got two Board of (Education) people on here even though we’re this whole report,” she said.

Member Vik Muktavaram said he was in favor of an advisory group to further review the Antinozzi report, noting the success of the CMS Building Committee.

However, member Lee Goldstein said she didn’t think a new committee was needed.

“At a certain point, we need to believe the experts we’ve hired,” she said. “I believe we rely too much on volunteer groups.”

Interim Superintendent David Abbey said it’s important to move from narrative and discussions to concrete outcomes, as this could heavily affect the budgetary process.

“The facility plan needs to be specified to the degree that it can,” he said, adding it would serve as a touchstone for the district’s work moving forward.

Abbey said the short-term objective is to complete the budget, while the long-term goal is to create a collaborative system for the BOE and town.

Town officials also voiced support for increased collaboration.

First Selectman Jim Marpe said he looked to work with the BOE not only in terms of budget, but moving forward to take care of facilities.

“That’s what this staff working group is all about,” he said. “It’s not to dictate anything to anybody.”

He added if there’s someone from the BOE staff that can provide educational insight, that person would be a great addition to the group.

Board of Finance member Jim Foster said working with the BOE was high on his list, but expressed he was slightly disappointed in the lack of progress of implementing the Antinozzi report.

“We’re about to go into a budget process, which will be followed by a revaluation and a whole bunch of other headwinds confronting us,” he said. “We’ve got to have the data together to make the right choices.”

The education board will discuss the topic again at its meeting on Jan. 13.