Year in Review: 2019 marks year of transition in Westport
WESTPORT — Westporters can look back on 2019 as a year of major transition in town.
From new board members to a national superintendent search, Westport schools head into the new decade on the precipice of change. Fresh faces stepped into elected positions and old faces left long-held ones. Joey’s by the Shore closed late in the year after being a longtime favorite spot of beachgoers.
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Other top stories included Coleytown Middle School’s renovation projection remaining on schedule to reopen by August, and the school board reconsidering its legal counsel. The ongoing saga between Matsu Sushi workers and their former employer also seems far from over.
Here’s a look back at some of the top stories of 2019.
Superintendent Colleen Palmer leaves
In March, a survey by the Westport Intermediate Administrators Association showed widespread discontent, distrust and concern among Westport school administrators. That same month, then-schools chief Colleen Palmer announced her resignation.
While her resignation would take effect in August, she did not return citing a family medical emergency. In May David Abbey would be named interim Westport Superintendent.
Now, a national superintendent search has begun to find a permanent figurehead to lead the next chapter of Westport schools..
Staples principal resigns; new principal steps in
March marked a month of departures. Staples High School Principal James D’Amico announced he would resign at the end of the school year to take a job at his alma mater — New Fairfield High School.
Stafford W. Thomas Jr. was named the new principal in May. Thomas previously served as principal at Hillcrest Middle School in Trumbull, which was named the 2018-19 Connecticut Association of Schools’ Middle School of the Year.
RTM approves funds for Coleytown Middle School
When Coleytown Middle School closed in 2018 due to mold, many were concerned for the future of its students, staff and the building itself. With the work of the CMS Building Committee, a $32 million plan to restore the building was put into place.
In July, the Representative Town Meeting approved funds for what was described as the largest appropriation the town had witnessed in the past 15 years. Building Committee Chairman Don O’Day has said by mid-April, a final decision will be made on whether or not the school will in fact be open in time for the next school year.
The building is currently still on schedule to be reopened by August.
Rehab center faces uncertain future
Citing lack of funds, the Westport Rehabilitation Complex made headlines when the announcement of its closure shocked occupants and their families. Around the same time, the building’s owners filed a pre-application with the Planning and Zoning Commission to turn the property into a high-end hotel.
After several community meetings and a letter from state officials, the facility’s management announced plans to keep the building open in July. But the attorney representing the building’s owners has said the plan for the hotel remains in play, leaving the future of the facility unclear.
School board asked to reconsider legal counsel
In October, the Board of Education unanimously voted to put out a request for proposals for new legal services. This came admid calls from both the Board of Selectmen and RTM to terminate a 30-year relationship with Shipman & Goodwin.
The Hartford-based firm had been criticized by local officials for representing both the BOE and a developer of a highly contested affordable housing application in town. Residents also called for the firm to be fired following controversial remarks made by Tim Hollister, a Shipman & Goodwin attorney, in a CTmirror article regarding affordable housing in Westport that touched on race.
While the BOE will maintain its legal counsel for the remainder of the school year, a request or proposals is estimated to start when the budget process finishes around late March.
Newly elected officials take office
Though Westport did not see a selectman race, this year’s municipal election brought new faces to many important positions. Two new BOE members and two new Board of Finance members were elected, and one RTM race was so close it led to two recanvasses of votes.
All-in-all, the newly elected and re-elected officials took their oath of office on Nov. 18, ready to lead Westport into the future.
Joey’s by the Shore closes
After an apparent rent dispute, the town announced the closure of Joey’s by the Shore concessions in November. According to a news release, longtime owner Joey Romeo advised the town he would not be paying the full rent due in 2019.
The concession has serviced the Westport community for 32 years. First Selectman Jim Marpe announced a plan to get a concessionaire in place to meet the community’s needs as soon as possible.
Matsu Sushi saga continues
Despite a judge ordering the reinstatement of two chefs fired from Matsu Sushi for refusing to complete a 36-hour shift, the two have yet to get their jobs back.
Throughout the year the restaurant had many temporary closures — once for renovations, and again due to having its sales tax permit suspended. In December a settlement was announced, but a week later the store closed leaving the workers’ future with the business uncertain.
Coleytown principal put on leave following arrest
Coleytown Middle School principal Kris Szabo was placed on administrative leave in December following her arrest for allegedly striking a man during a parking dispute in Southbury.
According to police, Szabo, 49, struck a 71-year-old man after he verbally confronted her for parking in a “no parking” area. She is out on a $500 bond and has since appeared in court. A discrepancy in what really occurred has led the prosecution to attempt to contact the victim to receive a sworn statement.
Szabo’s next court date is Dec. 30.
Redistricting decision pushed off
With the closure of Coleytown, the BOE attempted to address two growing problems: Declining enrollment and parity between the town’s middle schools.
Months of discussions on potential redistricting decisions ultimately came to a head when two consultants came back with different enrollment projection numbers.
On Dec. 9 the BOE voted unanimously to hold off on redistricting for the 2020-21 school year, effectively laying discussions to rest — for now.