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New Canaan Town Council approves $133,690 for school security with impassioned vote

Published 4:45 pm, Wednesday, March 6, 2013

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  • New Canaan Public Schools Superintendent Mary Kolek argues in favor of the special appropriation for school security projects at the Feb. 28, 2013 Town Council meeting. Photo: Tyler Woods
    New Canaan Public Schools Superintendent Mary Kolek argues in favor of the special appropriation for school security projects at the Feb. 28, 2013 Town Council meeting. Photo: Tyler Woods

 

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After nearly three hours of vigorous deliberation, procedural questions, a failed attempt to reach the town attorney, and an impassioned speech by Superintendent Mary Kolek, the Town Council approved a special appropriation of $133,690 for purchases related to school security at its Thursday, Feb. 28, meeting.

Additionally, the district will fund $144,931 from the current school budget for a total of $274,869, which will be used for one campus security monitor at each elementary school and two monitors at Saxe Middle School for the remainder of the school year, locks for many doors that can be secured from the inside of classrooms and several other smaller communications items like radios and batteries.

"I'm elated. Elated. We did the right thing," Town Council member Christine Hussey said after the meeting.

A majority of the discussion focused on how unarmed campus monitors would benefit the district in a situation such as what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. Although Newtown was the impetus to take another look at school security, Kolek said, the proposals were not intended to prevent a similar incident.

"What happened in Sandy Hook made us stop and we reacted to it, but we didn't have to be reactive," Kolek said in the first of her several addresses to the council. Rather, the district, in concert with the police, fire and emergency operations departments, decided on a course of action that would reduce the security risks the district could control, not simply try and stop another Newtown, she said. One of the main ways would be to replace the volunteer parents and school staff that have traditionally manned the entry desks up until now.

"There were often open spaces at our desks when we had volunteers," Kolek said. "In some cases, principals, administrative officials were (there)."

In addition to pulling teachers and administrators from their normal jobs, South Elementary School Principal Joanne Rocco, who serves as chairman of the district's Crisis Advisory Board, said if situations do arise, the schools want trained personnel on site.

"In these two months, we've had some difficult situations with some angry people," she said, referencing the two months since the Newtown shooting, wherein her school has been vigilant about having someone at the door. "Situations had to do with delivery people who we didn't know too well. At the desk was a pregnant teaching assistant and one was 21 years old. We had a difficult situation to handle and we had a person who was not trained."

Director of Emergency Operations Michael Handler also recalled an episode that occurred shortly after the Newtown shooting. He had a meeting at East Elementary to discuss crisis situations. He noticed that he was buzzed into the building and never asked for any identification. The message was relayed to the staff member who buzzed him in, who wrote him a long email, explaining all the other tasks she had to do.

"I talked to the person the next day," Handler said. "It probably took about six minutes before she full out started crying. That person, who's charged with hitting that button, has a responsibility greater than anyone could possibly imagine."

But it was Board of Education Chairman Alison Bedula who may have driven the point home in the strongest terms.

"For campus monitors, we're talking about five people," she said. "We already have 700 staff members in our buildings every day. It's our children who are suffering on a daily basis when they don't have their teachers in their rooms. We were hoping this was going to be passed tonight. If we have to go through this process again, I think that's unacceptable in a community like ours."

In legal limbo

But there was a problem in the way the appropriation was constructed, Town Councilman Roger Williams pointed out. The security guard appropriation was listed as part of a capital project, which is differentiated in budgets for items like roads and bridges, but not payroll, which only could be considered an operating expense, Williams contended.

What followed was a roughly 45-minute conversation in which the council was hamstrung over how to address that concern. Council Chairman Mark DeWaele requested a call be made to Town Counsel Ira Bloom to explain the situation to him and allow him to make a decision whether the council could vote on it, but he could not be reached.

Board of Finance member John Sheffield, at whose fingertips the town charter never seems too far, offered his opinion after he was called from the audience. He said he believed the council could vote for the appropriation despite the fact that it was slated as a capital expense. Chief Financial Officer Dawn Norton pointed out that the items together constitute a single project, namely school security, and that nearly all capital projects involve labor on some level.

Should school security be "outsourced?"

It may not have mattered whether or not the language of the appropriation was in error, as many on the council had serious questions about "outsourcing" security to guards from a private firm, especially when the school resource officer (SRO) at the high school has been such a success, according to many on the council and in the police department. Indeed, although Kolek said the campus monitors would "serve a different purpose" from the SRO, the appropriation request itself does not ask for a monitor at the high school, since it "already has SRO and supervisory aides," according to the "School Safety and Security Phase I Project" summary handed out at the meeting.

Though Kolek and Bedula assured the council several times that the plans had been made in cooperation with the police, some on the council seemed unmoved.

Councilman Steve Karl voiced concerns about outsourcing the schools' security responsibilities.

"I want to go on record saying I fully support Phase I (the district's proposal) but I cannot support outsourcing in our schools; I'm not comfortable with it," he said.

He wasn't the only one. Councilman John Engel had several questions that remained unanswered. Before the meeting, the Board of Education had disseminated a document explaining the request, but had removed six of its 10 pages on the grounds that they contained classified and sensitive security information.

"Where's the chief of police? Why is the outsourcing necessary to do tonight? And why can't I read the other six pages of the 10-page proposal?" Engel asked, exasperated at his perception that the council was not trusted enough to be given the information. "I have spent an hour with the chief and I didn't get the answers I expected when I talked to him and I want to hear him on the record. As much as I respect Mr. Cole, he is not the police force."

Police Commissioner Jim Cole spoke at the meeting in favor of the project, but when pressed by a question from council member Kit Devereaux, was non-committal that the security needs couldn't be met using the town's own police.

"Whether we use outside contractor services or internal, we need to get teachers back in the classroom. I'm in favor of that, though I don't know what form is appropriate," Cole said in response to the question.

Reached by phone Thursday afternoon, Chief Ed Nadriczny gave a similar response.

"My recommendation is to see what develops out of Board of Education plan and to see how that progresses, how expensive that will be, and what number of personnel they contemplate hiring," he said. "We could augment that with our personnel. It's going to be a community-based decision."

"Let's just vote for heaven's sake."

With no word from Bloom and hours of discussion back and forth, Hussey had just about had it.

"Let's just vote for heaven's sake," she said, after proposing a motion to pass the agenda item as stated.

The council, led by Williams, continued to hem and haw over the rules of parliamentary procedure and town charter, centered on the issue of having the guards listed as a capital expense. It came up that if the council voted on Hussey's motion to approve the entire amount and it failed, the council could not then go back and revote to approve just the non-security guard items, which seemed to have consensus support.

DeWaele asked Kolek if she had an opinion on what they should do in the potentially all-or-nothing situation.

In one of the unquestionable turning points of the night, the perpetually even-tempered Kolek, standing at the podium in front of her district's principals, top administrators and supporters in the audience, delivered an animated response.

"The safe thing to say is do it in pieces, but this is about safety. The principals are here; the teachers, the SRO, the EOC have all said we need these people at our door. I would ask for you to trust us. We would not come to you with something that is frivolous. Take the vote," Kolek said. "We'll live with whatever the vote is. I'll take the risk and say that is what we think you should do."

The audience behind her and the members of the Town Council broke out in immediate and sustained applause as Kolek returned to her seat.

Undeterred, Williams proposed an amendment to the motion to approve money for only the hardware and communications items.

The motion failed.

The only option at that point was an up or down vote on the entirety of the $274,869 project. DeWaele explained that in the event of a "no" vote, the process would have to start again from the beginning, going through the boards of Finance and Selectmen as well as publishing legal notices.

"Practically, it would be a month," he said.

In another turning point, Karl shifted his position, taking a broader look at the situation.

"I'm still strongly opposed to the outsourcing, however, I will not stand in the way of providing security to our schools ... the hardware, the locks, so I will be supporting (the appropriation)," he said, noting that this appropriation was only for the rest of the school year, and that the council could face this decision again in a few months.

Engel followed him in expressing similar sentiments.

"There won't be a comeback in three months, Steve," Williams said, fighting to the last, with the idea that once the security guards became a part of the budget he would be skeptical they would ever leave. "This is the moment right now. There ain't no moment three months from now."

By this point the council had been at the issue for nearly three hours. Hussey was getting impatient and suggested they just vote.

"What we're talking about here is trust. That's the beginning and that's the end," she said, concluding the discussion.

What happened next was unexpected. DeWaele read the motion and the hand of each member of the Town Council went up.

"Miraculously, that's unanimous," an amused DeWaele noted, to smiles around the room.

The council still had several items on its agenda, but for all intents and purposes the meeting was over. An exhausted but satisfied school district administration left the building.

After the meeting, Engel explained his vote.

"Better to vote for a mostly good bill," he said.

For his part Williams, who had disagreed so strongly throughout the meeting, said he felt something as important as school security ought to be unanimous.

twoods@bcnnew.com; 203-972-4413; https://twitter.com/Woods_NCNews