To the editor:
During her recent “State of the Town” address, the first selectwoman claimed that the current Long Lots School project “represents a compromise,” that the project was taking place according to the “democratic process stipulated by our charter” and that “everything possible” was being done “to ensure that every member of our community feels safe, heard and valued.”
Others in town would respectfully disagree.
The “compromise” she referred to is a plan in which Westport races to build a $100 million elementary school over the next 30 months, along with ballfields and a revised community garden. That is a staggering sum, done at breakneck pace, with massive tax consequences for our community as a whole.
Given the needs of all our schools, plus the many additional capital projects being contemplated by the town, devoting $100 million to a single project is hardly a community-wide “compromise” except in the sense that we are “compromising” just about everything else (such as other long overdue school upgrades we will need to fund in the near future).
That’s not how Westport has done things in the past, and is surely not the way we should move forward now.
In the past when significant school projects were undertaken, such as the renovations and construction of Greens Farms Elementary, Staples High School and Bedford Middle School, Westport made decisions and carried out projects as part of a broad community-driven process.
Specifically, the RTM, consistent with charter rules, passed a resolution in August 1999 to empower a school building committee consisting of 30 members to take on this task. In that process, a large number of community members and constituent groups were brought into the conversation.
That’s not what happened with regard to the current Long Lots building committee of just five voting members who were handpicked by the first selectwoman last year and then reviewed and approved by the RTM in a single day. The results, predictably, have led to anger, confusion and divisiveness in the community.
There is still time to fix this situation. The RTM can step up and assert its proper legislative role. Happily, there is no need to reinvent the wheel: The RTM can turn to its 1999 precedent which was by all accounts a major success. While the Long Lots School Building Committee need not have 30 members, it surely should have more than just five.
To that end, the RTM should immediately create an interim committee of key RTM leaders. Their mission should be to assess the current Long Lots School Building Committee membership, consider additional members drawn from a more representative cross section of the community, confirm that there are no perceived conflicts and then either reaffirm or amend the school building committee’s powers based on these findings.
Nobody wants to delay construction of the Long Lots School. But given the size of the proposed project and its implications for our town’s financial future, we need a process that generates confidence, considers this project in the context of other capital projects that may arise in the future, and reflects input from all affected parties.
I commend the hard work of the Long Lots School Building Committee. They are good people operating under a flawed process. To ensure an outcome that reflects the shared goals of all Westporters, it is incumbent upon the RTM to use its power to review and make changes to the school building committee membership and process.
In a few short weeks, the RTM moderator could appoint a committee charged with making recommendations for this next important phase. This step would fulfill the mission of the RTM under the Town Charter as a representative body, and demonstrate a willingness by our elected officials to listen to the public’s views throughout the process. That way, we can aspire to build the future based on the solid foundations of our past.
District 9 member
Representative Town Meeting