The Board of Finance.
The Board of Finance at Town Hall on Tuesday night.

By Thane Grauel

WESTPORT — The Board of Finance on Tuesday held the first of its three meetings on whether to fund the design phase of the new Long Lots Elementary School, as requested by the Long Lots School Building Committee.

The building committee recently recommended building a new school, with sustainable options, and moving the Westport Community Gardens to the town-owned Baron’s South property.

No decisions were made Tuesday night, but First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker laid out a rough timeline of the potential approval process. And Board of Finance Chairman Lee Caney began the meeting with a warning.

Lee Caney.
Board of Finance Chairman Lee Caney

“There’s been a lot of discussion as you know about this project in our town,” Caney said. “Unfortunately, civility has taken a back seat to emotions and has resulted in attacks on elected officials, the Long Lots [School] Building Committee, which is an all-volunteer committee that is dedicated a tremendous amount of time to this project, volunteers who run youth sports programs, and other town residents who have differing opinions.”

“Let me state very clearly that personal attacks by any members of the public on other people will not be tolerated in front of our board,” Caney continued. “As I’ve stated in the past, I welcome the opportunity for our board to listen to public comment but will not tolerate abuse of anybody, which is not productive, nor in line with the values of Westporters.”

He also said he was confounded at the notion the process has not been transparent.

Tooker spoke about where the proposal would head next.  

“The Parks and Recreation Commission will consider recreational needs and uses, the Planning and Zoning Commission will consider greater land uses,” Tooker said. “We are behind schedule. We thought the recommendation from the building committee would be delivered at the end of September, it was not delivered until Oct. 19.”

“So, as a result, the Parks and Recreation Commission will meet this Monday, the 30th of October, and it anticipates it will need to meet twice within the next couple of weeks,” Tooker said. “It is important that they meet before the Planning and Zoning Commission because their decisions will inform the 8-24 that will be before the Planning and Zoning Commission.”

Jennifer Tooker.
First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker

Tooker said the Parks and Recreation Commission will discuss the matter at least twice, “so I do not anticipate being before the Planning and Zoning Commission until December.”

“Then the appropriation for a design specifications for the new school will be considered both by the Board of Finance and the Representative Town Meeting, and their committee structure,” she said.

She said there would be plenty of opportunities for the public to comment on the plan and be part of the process.

“We are still targeting the fall of 2024 to start construction,” Tooker said. “I want to be really clear that this entire team is dedicated to that, I don’t want that to get lost, and I’m looking right at the Board of Education when I say that. We do not want this project to be delayed.”

An 8-24 report is needed, under state law, from the P&Z before major changes a town property can proceed. Tooker’s recent 8-24 request to the P&Z for the proposed Parker Harding Plaza parking lot redesign got a frosty reception Monday, and its future is uncertain.

Stove-piping the Long Lots plan to other town bodies might add more time pressure once it gets to the P&Z.

Some of the speakers Tuesday took issue with Caney’s characterization of previous discussions before other town bodies.

Toni Simonetti.
Toni Simonetti

Toni Simonetti, an advocate for preserving the Westport Community Gardens at Long Lots, where they’ve been more than two decades, was among them. She has made requests for documents under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

“I do not agree this has been a completely honest process,” she said. “The committee was formed in September 2022.

“The process went on for nine months. Nine months. And I’m thinking, wow, we’re going to have a nice new school next to us, isn’t that great,” she said.

In late June, Simonetti said, the gardeners got wind of the plan and became active, and the 06880 blog wrote about it.

“The director of Parks and Recreation circulated that article to her colleagues with the comment, ‘Guess they got the news,’ ” Simonetti said. “That is a disrespect. The neighbors were never consulted, the gardeners were never consulted, we had to force our way into the process.”

Jennifer Johnson, who is running for the RTM in District 9, appeared to aim for a unifying tone.

“I’m sorry for this representation that the dialogue has been uncivil,” she said. “So, to the extent that you may feel that you’ve been attacked by one individual I personally think that this is an extremely exciting time,” she said. “In that we have a lot of people with a lot of ideas.”

“We have good problems in this town,” Johnson said. “We have people who want to keep a garden, we have people who want to build a ballfield, we have people that maybe we can build a $100 million school and maybe we can put the preschool there. These are good problems, and so I hope, and I understand that we are feeling divided, but I think that there really is more that brings us together than tears us apart.”

Megan Clarke.
Megan Clarke

She said it would have been helpful if the building committee gathered all the stakeholders at the beginning.

“I’m sorry that didn’t happen, and that’s part of the catch-up that we’re having right here,” she said.

Several speakers were from the Stepping Stones Preschool community.

The school is now located at Coleytown Elementary School, but would have its own building at the new Long Lots campus.

Megan Clarke, director of the school, was among many who spoke in favor of the plan.

“This decision will allow us, our preschool, to meet the state requirement of a 50-50 ratio of students to peer models in an appropriate new facility with appropriate-sized preschool classrooms,” she said. “We have not met this requirement. Our current physical space limits our abilities to appropriately provide, improve and expand the incredible work or our students and our staff.”

Thane Grauel grew up in Westport and has been a journalist in Fairfield County and beyond for 35 years. Reach him at editor@westportjournal.com. Learn more about us here.