Westport News January 12th 2001

It Came Out Of Left Field"
by Dan Woog

             It came out of left field. And, unless the Planning and Zoning Commission votes against it next Thursday – or Westporters rouse themselves from their post-holiday slumber – that might be the end of left field as we know it.  Say goodbye to center field and right field too, and the soccer and field hockey fields as well.  But get ready to pay perhaps $100 million for the privilege.

            “It,” of course, is the Board of Education plan – approved, if not in the dead of night, then certainly in the dead of winter and with absolutely no public input – to move ahead with the construction of a new Staples High School.  It would rise three stories high on the site of the current baseball, soccer and field hockey fields, where spectators now enjoy games from the finest hillside perch in the state.  New fields would be built where much of the current school – opened in 1958, and renovated two decades ago – now stands.  The auditorium and field house would remain.

The Board of Ed was presented with three options.  The other two would push the school forward into the bus turnaround, with no demolition.  During just one night of discussion – “debate” is too strong a word – the board selected the most expensive plan.

            No, this is not an April Fool’s column.  Call it instead a January surprise.

            Last weekend, I talked with a number of prominent Westporters.  They were teachers, past and present; businessmen and architects; men and women who are long and avid supporters of educators.  Some led fights against budget-cutting referendums.  Of those who knew of the new plan – and some of Westport’s most tuned-in citizens had heard nothing about it – not one was in favor.

Their opposition takes many forms:  educational, athletic, environmental, financial. Some questioned the decision-making process itself, or the timeline involved.  Many stressed that they are not anti-education; they are, however, anti-big building.  As they spoke, I took notes on the major issues they raised.  To my knowledge, none has yet been discussed publicly.  I believe, however, each must be addressed before the town moves one step further.

·        First of all, who says the current Staples “doesn’t work”?  Is it indeed beyond repair?  What about all the money poured into it in recent years:  bringing it up to code, fixing heating problems, dropping ceilings, adding computer labs and a television studio, modernizing the library?

·         It has been alleged that the current buildings would not support a second floor. Are there studies proving that?  Modern construction techniques must surely allow supporting structures to be driven somewhere in the existing footprint. 

·        What will Staples lose by going from a wide-open, outdoors-oriented school, to a vertical, self-contained one?  An important movement in education today is the push toward “schools that work.”  Have studies been done on the efficacy of traditional multi-story buildings?  It has been said that the “new Staples” will allow departments like English and social studies, and math and science, to work more closely together.  What happens when a new educational philosophy comes into vogue?  And speaking of educational philosophy, must ninth graders always remain at the high school?  If they do not, how would that affect building plans?

·        One concern with pushing the building forward is parking.  Right now, the parking lot is filled with students’ cars.  What is wrong with saying that students should take the buses our taxes pay for?  If that provokes howls, how about a parking deck?

·        One reason given for creating a new building is that students would have nowhere to go if the current school was renovated.  That was not an issue from 1979-81; students survived that modernization.  This time around, portables in the parking lot would relieve pressure, especially if renovation took place one building at a time.

·        What are the real figures?  So far, numbers from $84 to $99 million have been bandied about, with vague promises of cost-cutting to come.  No capital expense in memory has cost less than the initial estimate; final tabs are often far higher.  Has anyone examined the cost of new schools around the state?  (Hint:  Start with Darien.)

·        What will happen to the baseball, soccer and field hockey teams during the three to four years (minimum) it will take to build a new school, then convert the old one into usable playing fields?  Is there information on the effect on high school athletic programs that spend several years as nomads?  And where will the non-Staples teams that also use those fields practice and play? 

·        More specifically, where are the site plans for the new fields?  Is there actually enough room to build a regulation-size soccer and field hockey field – with bleachers?  In fact, does the funding estimate include construction of new fields, or does it cover only the cost of the new structure?  How expensive – and practical – is it to build fields on the site of a former school?  And aren’t there wetlands on the south side of the property?

·         Is there absolutely no room on the Nike site to expand?  What about the land between the new middle school and Staples?  It is much closer physically to the buildings that will be preserved, and thus makes far more sense than expanding onto land that is already well utilized.

·        Neighbors have successfully blocked lights on the football field for years.  It is virtually certain they will sue to prevent a three-story school looming in their back yards.  Was any thought given to the time and money such lawsuits will entail? 

·        What about a referendum on the cost?  Westport has endured long, bitter battles aimed at cutting a few thousand dollars from the education budget.  What will happen when – in perhaps leaner economic times -- taxpayers are asked to pay for the most expensive option (by far) of three?

·        Finally, one last but crucial question: Why has there been so little input from the overlapping circles of teachers, townspeople, athletic groups and neighbors who would be most affected?  No public meetings were held; no one asked you or me what we thought the Staples High School of the 21st century should look like, or where it should sit.  Instead, very quietly, in the middle of the holidays, the Board of Education moved forward with a costly, questionable plan.

            It may indeed have come out of left field.  But there is still time to knock this idea out of the park.