Board divided on Westfield School Choice funding

WESTFIELD – The School Committee accepted a draft policy for the use of school choice funds Monday night but still has to deal with a rift in how those funds should be expended.
Attorney Russell F. Denver of Sullivan, Hayes & Quinn of Springfield, presented a draft that deals with the legal constraints for school choice expenditures, but leaves considerable latitude for the board to define its policy.
The board appeared divided Monday night between two basic approaches to school choice fund allocation.
One approach is that schools, with school choice students whose attendance generates the revenue, should have the first, and largest, bite at the funding apple, while the second approach is that those funds should be used “to enhance educational programs” throughout the district.
Superintendent Suzanne Scallion supported the second approach to avoid “creating two classes of schools.”
“Some schools can’t accept school choice students because they have no room,” Scallion said. “We also have level 3 schools where the kids have the greatest needs” for additional education programs and services.
The School Committee and administration approve student attendance overlay zones, which result in determining which schools have surplus capacity because of enrollment within that specific zone feeding students to a particular school.
The largest generator of school choice funding is Westfield High School, which usually has a school-choice student population of 60 students, resulting in a school choice income of $300,000 a year.
Westfield Vocational Technical High School is not allowed, under state law, to accept school choice students. Communities which send out-of-district students to WVTHS pay a tuition of about $14,000 a year, money that goes back to the city’s general fund, although Mayor Daniel M. Knapik is evaluating a request to the City Council to establish a dedicated, revolving account to allow those out-of-district tuition funds to be used for enhancement of vocational programs.
The draft policy would enable the board and district to use School Choice funds more broadly than it has in the past. State law allows districts to use those funds for recurring expenses, such as staff salaries and services.
Traditional, the school board has not used those funds for recurring expenditures and has typically disbursed funding to individual schools at the end of the school year.
Committeewoman Mary Beth Sacco Ogulewicz argued that the funding should be made available at the beginning of the new budget cycle to allow administrators to support programs and services within their buildings.
“The point of this account is to enhance services to students,” Ogulewicz said. “It is not our rainy day fund for emergencies, it is not there to balance our budget.”
“The committee can delegate a certain portion so the principal goes into the year knowing what resources are available at the beginning of the year,” she said. “There is no planning ahead of time.”
Committeeman Kevin Sullivan agreed that approach would help principals determine what services and programs could be brought into their school buildings at the beginning of the new year, but also urged caution in determining how much would be allocated at the beginning of the year.
“We have to be able to be flexible so we can allocate funds where they are most needed during the school year, in the case of an emergency situation we may have to address,” Sullivan said.
Committeewoman Cindy Sullivan said that adopting a policy clearly defining allowable funding and the application process may encourage the superintendent and principals to submit requests for funding much earlier in the academic year.
“This policy may give them permission to come before us in December instead of the end of the year,” she said.
The draft also gives the superintendent discretionary spending authority for up to $5,000, with a report after the fact to the School Committee explaining the disbursement.
The policy also sets a standard form for School Choice funding requests, requiring the superintendent, principal or staff member seeking those funds to detail the intended use, total amount needed and how the expenditure will enhance educational programs and provide direct benefit to students.
The board also added another requirement of a back brief on the effectiveness of the program or services several months after the allocation is approved.

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