WESTPORT – Board of Education members discussed redistricting as a solution for projected overcrowding at Long Lots Elementary School, sparking parent opposition and dividing the board along party lines.
At the Monday board meeting, parents spoke in opposition to spot redistricting suggestions from members and pushed for a long-term plan. The week prior, members approved the addition of two portable classrooms by a 4 to 3 vote – those against modules recommended moving special education classrooms and transferring the preschool program instead.
The debate over redistricting began in fall 2022 after SLAM Collaborative – an architecture firm – reported significantly higher enrollment at the elementary level than prior projections, driven by an influx of families during the pandemic. The firm also estimated that Long Lots would have the greatest growth in the next five years, with enrollment reaching 687 students by the 2026-27 school year.
Beatrice Hittman, a parent and PTA representative for special education at Long Lots School denounced the idea of transferring special education students.
“I’m urging the board to supply Long Lots School with the modules they are requesting, especially since there is no solid plan in place and no long-term solution for the Long Lots School building and redistricting,” said Hittman at Monday’s meeting. “I can assure you that moving the children in the Intensive Resource room to a different location on the other side of town would be catastrophic … the fact that this was suggested as a solution is pure ignorance.”
At the Jan. 3 meeting, Superintendent Thomas Scarice urged the board to hold off on redistricting plans until September 2025, when the newly formed Long Lots Building Committee would have decided whether to renovate the school or build additional space, and instead approve a $600,000, two-year portable classrooms contract at Long Lots.
Opposing the temporary measure, Liz Heyer, the Republican vice chair of the board, argued against delaying the inevitable.
“If we’re going to need to redistrict in two years, I don’t know why we would put that off,” Heyer said. “In fact, to me, it would make more sense to do it now because we have a much greater chance of the same kids not being moved twice, and we also avoid spending a big chunk of money on modulars that don’t really – in my opinion – solve the issue at Long Lots.”
Heyer said that while portable classrooms provided additional square footage, she worried they would do little to lessen overcrowding at Long Lots.
“It’s hard for me, in good conscience, to think about spending money on something that’s not really solving the problem,” Heyer explained. “Especially when there are other opportunities.”
Heyer said she’d hoped for more information on alternative solutions from the administration, such as moving the Stepping Stones Preschool program from the crowded Coleytown Elementary School to Saugatuck Elementary School – the school with the lowest enrollment – or relocating special education classrooms.
But Democratic Chair Lee Goldstein said that scheduling redistricting for 2023 would be “irresponsible” and “chaotic.”
“I do think we needed to be pushed to redistrict sooner than later, and I think you’re right about that,” Goldstein said. “But to just like start doing crazy things like shoehorn Stepping Stones into Saugatuck… or just move the IR kids? That, to me, is honestly a little gross.”
Goldstein said that rather than spot redistricting populations of students, she wanted to hear the Long Lots Building Committee’s decision, a timeline that could stretch until 2026, and transfer the Stepping Stones Preschool before drafting a district-wide plan.
But Republican member Robert Harrington defended Heyer’s reluctance to accept modular classrooms in place of redistricting, and questioned why members were “pussyfooting” around the issue of where Stepping Stones Preschool should go. He reminded the board of their power in Westport Public Schools.
“We are the Board of Education,” Harrington said. “If we make the recommendation that the Stepping Stone should be rehoused at Long Lots – be it in a refurbished campus or a brand new campus – that is the decision that the town of Westport should respect. And I don’t want an RTM, or a building committee or anyone else other than the Board of Education telling us what our educational recommendation should be for Stepping Stones.”
In addition to urging the board to protect special education students from redistricting, Hittman also directly addressed Harrington’s previous comments at the Monday meeting.
“With all due respect, respect is earned by showing compassion, empathy and consistency in how these decisions are made,” Hittman said to Harrington. “Respect is not given to you based on the title that you carry.”
Speaking on her own behalf, Paula Soto, co-president of the Long Lots Parent Teacher Association, said that while she understood that redistricting discussions were necessary, she urged members who opposed modular classrooms to provide a more viable solution to overcrowding.
“No more half-baked or flippant suggestions will be accepted from parents such as myself,” Soto said.
Parent Rebecca Zipkin also submitted a letter supporting modular classrooms into the meeting record. According to Zipkin, over 160 parents of Long Lots students provided signatures.
Soon after public comment ended, Harrington proposed adding a high-level discussion about potential long-term redistricting plans to the agenda.
“If I’m going to be the unpopular one by suggesting redistricting, I want to put my name to that and not hide away from the discussion,” Harrington explained. “I don’t want to do that behind closed doors.”
“I want to reject your implication… There are no behind closed doors discussions about redistricting. That’s not happening unless you’re having them,” Goldstein responded.
“I’m not having them,” said Harrington. “That’s even more worrying. There are no discussions about it.”
But board members hesitated to approve the agenda item, citing the lack of notice to community members. Harrington instead withdrew the suggestion, and proposed an official conversation at the Jan. 17 meeting. Still, members rejected the proposal in a 4 to 3 vote along party lines after Scarice requested additional time to prepare.
“Maybe the Democrats should just tell us when they want to discuss it and we will vote on that,” Harrington said following board rejection. “That’s what it looks like.”
The board ultimately voted unanimously to put the redistricting discussion on the agenda for their Jan. 23 meeting.