First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker, photo at left, and Board of Education Chairwoman Lee Goldstein deliver remarks during the annual “State of the Town” program Sunday at the Westport Library. / Photos by Gretchen Webster

By Gretchen Webster

WESTPORT — From traffic safety and downtown revitalization to Longshore improvements and flood control, First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker outlined her top priorities for this year during her annual “State of the Town” address Sunday at the Westport Library.

Also speaking was Board of Education Chairwoman Lee Goldstein, who addressed the current goals and challenges for the town’s public schools.

The program, which took place in person and virtually, was hosted by the Westport Rotary and Westport Sunrise Rotary clubs.

In her remarks, Tooker detailed her five leading priorities for 2023:

Traffic and Pedestrian Safety: After organizing meetings in each of the nine Representative Town Meeting districts on residents’ traffic concerns last year, she has released a compilation of the findings in a “Traffic & Pedestrian Safety Report” last week.

“The report notes what concerns we can tackle and what we cannot,” she said of the report, which categorizes projects as “green” or likely, “yellow” or possible with more planning and money, and “red” or outside the town’s control.

The town also last week was awarded a $450,000 federal grant to develop as “action plan” on traffic and safety issues, she said, plus a new police Traffic Safety Unit was formed last October to upgrade enforcement on speeding and general traffic issues. 

Tooker said she will continue to hold two public meetings annually on traffic concerns.

In response to a question after her talk about several troubled intersections, she said that the North Avenue/Cross Highway intersection, which some have called the most dangerous in town, is being studied by a traffic consultant hired by the town. 

“But there is nothing we can do,” she said, about many Post Road East hazards posed by traffic entering and leaving shopping centers flanking the street, because it is a state highway.

“We asked the state and they said they will not do anything about it,” she said, specifically citing the area at Trader Joe’s.

Tony McDowell, a Westport Rotary Club past president, introduced Goldstein and Tooker, and moderated a question-and-answer period following the officials’ “State of the Town” remarks.

Longshore Club Park Capital Improvement Plan: Tooker said she supports the plan to upgrade the town’s 169-acre park, and recommended that any resident who has not yet attended a meeting on the project or commented on the plans, study the proposal posted on the town’s website.

The plan, prioritizing various projects in the park and their costs, may face a final vote by the Parks and Recreation Commission later this month.

Revitalizing the Downtown Area: The Downtown Plan Implementation Committee has been working on improvements in central business district, she said, including the completed expansion and remodeling of the Baldwin parking lot. 

Plans also call for improvement of the riverfront at the Parker Harding lot, including restructuring the vehicular flow of traffic. 

Next up will be the Jesup Green area, she said. 

The downtown plan is posted here.

Flood and Stream Mitigation Management: After holding public meetings on flooding problems along seven streams in town, the town is planning to improve problems at the various streams individually over time. 

Flooding problems “are complicated and work to improve them are long-term in nature,” she said.

Westport Together: Tooker said she is committed to the organization “Westport Together,” an alliance of school groups, nonprofit organizations and town government, for its focus on topics of mental health, addiction prevention and youth issues. 

“Most of us are more fragile than before the pandemic,” she said. “We want to be known as the community that puts their arms around each other.”

A new town initiative the first selectwoman mentioned is the launch of a tech startup network in Westport, designed to bring together the local technology community. There will be a kickoff event for the group March 16, she said.

Goldstein on school enrollment spike, spending plans

Discussing the state of the town’s schools, the school board chairwoman cited pressures posed by growing enrollment as a primary concern.

Since 2020, an additional 262 students have enrolled in Westport schools, she said, requiring 13 more classrooms.

It was common knowledge that the COVID pandemic spurred families to move to Westport and other neighboring towns, Goldstein said, but a check with those towns revealed that the spike has not lasted — except in Westport. 

“People are flocking to Westport,” she said. “It’s also the best place to learn.”

She also cited social and emotional learning, making schools “more joyful and meaningful in the real world” with authentic-based learning and expanding support programs for stuents’ mental health as other top goals. “There is a mental health crisis,” she said.

Goldstein said she also supports giving students a greater voice in school programs, including adding a non-voting student representative on the Board of Education. 

More work on diversity, equity and inclusion in the schools in response to student concerns about feeling marginalized, and updating some classrooms or  “revitalizing learning spaces,” are other issues she mentioned.

Goldstein also said that a $136.3 million education budget for 2023-24, backed last week by the school board with a 5.2 percent increase over current spending, is necessary to avoid having to find other ways to fund school programs.

“Eighty percent of the budget is for salaries and benefits,” she said.

Both town leaders said they are working on sustainability in town government and the schools, and both said that promoting more civil discussion of local issues is important.

“We must learn to agree to disagree in a respectful way,” Tooker said. “You can’t make everybody happy with every decision. But everyone must be heard, respected and listened to.”

Freelance writer Gretchen Webster, a Fairfield County journalist and journalism teacher for many years, was editor of the Fairfield Minuteman newspaper for 10 years and currently teaches journalism at Southern Connecticut State University.

The audience on hand to hear the annual “State of the Town” program Sunday at the Westport Library. The program was hosted by the Westport Rotary and Westport Sunrise Rotary clubs.