School security, gun laws, affordable housing, and the cost of living — as well as the quality of life — in Weston were the main topics at Weston Speak Up 2013, presented by the League of Women Voters of Weston on Saturday, Feb. 23.
About 75 people attended the open question-and-answer forum at the Weston Public Library, and they heard from a panel of about 20 town and state officials. There were 15 people who “spoke up,” asking questions of the panelists or offering opinions.
Representatives from every major town board and commission were on hand, as well as the superintendent of schools, the town administrator, the police chief, and Weston’s two state senators, Toni Boucher (R-26th District) and John McKinney (R-28th District).
School safety and the related topic of gun laws took center stage. Richard Troxell asked what the police, the schools, and the town are planning to do to improve school safety and what the probable budgetary impacts are going to be.
Superintendent Colleen Palmer acknowledged that the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in neighboring Newtown in December had a “profound impact on every school in the country.”
It’s important, she said, to make sure students don’t feel like they in a “fortress,” but at the same time, the district must be mindful that things have changed.
The school district is focusing now on two top priorities, Dr. Palmer said: ways to delay or deter an intruder in any of the school buildings, and response rate of the police.
For the first, the schools are working with a consultant to make enhancements in their infrastructure.
Allen Swerdlowe of the Building Committee said ongoing renovations at the middle school and high school are all being coordinated with security issues in mind.
And “the entire workforce” was trained in security tactics last week, the superintendent said.
As far a police response rate, Dr. Palmer pointed out that Weston has the “luxury and the efficiency” of having all its schools centrally located, adding that Weston police have been “great partners” with the schools. She would like to see a consistent police presence on School Road as well as at least one full-time school resource officer (SRO).
In addition, the schools have increased their five security monitors to nine by recently hiring four retired law enforcement officers. The cost for those is approximately $32,000 per person, with cost savings coming from the fact that these officers already have insurance.
Police Chief John Troxell (who got a laugh by insisting his father — Richard Troxell — was “not a plant”) said he and the Police Commission asked for three additional officers in the upcoming budget: a 10th patrol officer to replace an officer who retired in 2010, a full-time school resource officer, and an 11th patrolman so the Mile of Safety (patrolling School Road) can be covered by an officer on straight time rather than one coming off the night shift and working overtime.
The cost of these additional officers is about $100,000, not including benefits, Chief Troxell said.
“When it comes to school safety, after Sandy Hook, we can’t afford not to,” he said.
Nmuk Cho of Walnut Lane voiced his support of adding an SRO and the new full-time police officer. “It’s our obligation to learn from the Newtown tragedy,” he said, adding that the town is discussing spending $750,000 to purchase an historic house on Norfield Road. “Let’s put that into context,” Mr. Cho said.
Guidance and mental health
Amy Sanborn asked what the schools and town are doing to address students or individuals who may need help before they potentially turn to violence.
Dr. Palmer said the schools have a “comprehensive program of support,” but that the special services department is overseen by just one person. The scope of the job has expanded to the point that “it’s too much for one person.”
Phil Schaefer, chairman of the school board, said an audit done three years ago recommended, among other things, strengthening the support network the schools have in place. When the economy “soured,” many recommendations were put off. “We can’t do that anymore,” Mr. Schaefer said.
First Selectman Gayle Weinstein said she is concerned by the fact the schools have only one social worker for all four schools. An SRO would help by developing relationships with students, she said.
In addition, Ms. Weinstein said, she is increasing her original budget request to include more hours for the town youth services director — a position that was reduced a few years ago.
Superintendent Palmer applauded the efforts of the town. “Sometimes what happens in families is beyond the reach of the school district,” but it is connected, she said.
Dr. Palmer added that guidance counselors have not been reduced, even though enrollment is declining, because they are often on the “front lines” of identifying troubled kids.
Sen. Toni Boucher talked about the state’s role in this issue. Ms. Boucher headed the school safety subcommittee of the bipartisan Legislative Task Force on Gun Violence and School Safety. The subcommittee recently concluded its hearings.
The committee was able to come to consensus on recommendations such as reimbursing school districts that install stronger doors and windows and implement safety plans and drills, she said.
What the committee could not agree on, though, were the things like SROs and security guards, because those involve “more serious financial mandates on school districts,” Ms. Boucher said.
Sen. John McKinney, who headed the overall task force, agreed the state has “to be mindful not to require towns to do something without providing the money to do so.” He said he envisions a state pool for grants that local districts may apply for to “use as they see fit. … It should be a local decision as to what the money is used for,” Mr. McKinney said.
Many other topics were discussed — some at length — during the almost two-hour Speak Up. These included:
Harvey Bellin asked the state legislators to consider making a change to the state minimum budget requirement that does not allow school districts to reduce their budgets. Rather than getting rid of it, since it does some good in urban areas, he wondered if perhaps towns like Weston might be able to apply for a waiver.
“Each [budget] increase is there forever,” Mr. Bellin said, and as a result, Weston’s per-pupil cost is “unsustainable.”
Mr. McKinney said a waiver “is not a bad idea.”
Dr. Palmer pointed out that there will always be a “cost of doing business.” Insurance and salary costs alone, simply moving teachers from one year to the next, accounts for an approximately $1-million increase to the school budget each year, she said.
Mr. Schaefer took issue with concentrating on per-pupil costs, which he said are misleading. “I find it very disconcerting and disappointing that’s the only number” people pay attention to, he said.
Jess DiPasquale asked how affordable housing regulations impact Weston.
Don Saltzman of the Planning and Zoning Commission explained that Weston has only one “affordable housing” property, mainly because the town does not have sewers and town water to support it.
Getting more affordable housing would mean changing regulations. So would, he added, getting more businesses in town, since there are limited places zoned for commercial use.
Barbara Rowland asked what is happening with the town-owned Lachat property on Godfrey Road West.
Carol Baldwin of the Lachat Oversight Committee said she hopes a plan will be ready in about a month. Regardless of what ultimately goes there, Ms. Baldwin said, she sees it as “a benefit to the health of our community if it goes forward in a positive way.”
The challenge, she said, is to come up with something that will last into the future, be self-sustaining, and meet and honor the parameters set forth by Leon Lachat when he sold the farm to the town.
Dierdre Doran of the Sustainability Committee said her work is “very interlinked” with Lachat. She said the Neighbor to Neighbor energy program her committee has promoted is allowing the town to use points earned from residents who participate to pay for a landscape architect to help finalize plans at Lachat.
Gisela Ruthman asked about gun laws.
Ms. Boucher said legislators are looking at increasing gun storage requirements.
Selectman Dave Muller said the Board of Selectmen realized that legally, the town would have a problem requiring safe storage, but the board wants to include a strong recommendation to store firearms safely in a preamble to its gun ordinance.
Mr. McKinney said, “There are improvements we can make with regard to safe storage.” He praised the efforts of local police chiefs who have been very helpful in the discussion.
Chief Troxell said the difficulty is enforcing a law like this. Police are not allowed to enter a home to see if guns are being properly stored, they “can only enforce it after there is a tragedy,” he said.
The chief said he would rather see a stronger state law than a local ordinance. “State law has more teeth,” and punishment for violating it would be more serious than a simple fine for violating a town ordinance.
However, he said, he appreciates the selectmen having the discussion about gun laws, because it has helped to focus attention on the issue.
Matt Chamberlain of Weston Road was the last member of the public to speak, and his comments drew applause from the audience. He said he moved from New Canaan just a few years ago because the quality of life and of the education in Weston is “unique.”
Volunteers are a big part of what makes the town special, he said. It’s important to note, he added, that the cost of living in Weston, especially the cost of the education system, is a “current investment,” not simply an investment in the future. “So much of the benefit we reap is happening right now,” he said.
“We don’t come here for retail services and restaurants.” He said one reason he left New Canaan was because the adults there put a priority on shopping. “That’s not mine,” he said, explaining why he likes Weston better.
A video of Speak Up 2013 is available on the League of Women Voters of Weston’s website, lwvweston.org. Copies are also available at the Weston Public Library.