Letter: Surprise offers school budget options

To the Editor,

The following was sent to the Westfield School Committee:

I am writing to ask you to see reason regarding your budget. This is a difficult time for the City of Westfield and for our citizens and taxpayers. Due to the COVID-19 virus related economic downturn, local and state tax revenues have fallen tremendously. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has reported that tax revenues are down 50% from last year’s levels. Right now they are $6 Billion under target. Once the delayed income tax filing date comes in June, they are still estimating a $2 Billion dollar revenue shortfall. Locally we have lost millions of dollars in revenue, with businesses (the largest taxpayers in the city) closed, and many never to re-open.

Not unlike dozens of school departments in communities across the state, the Mayor has asked the School Committee and School Department to do their part to help us through this crisis. Mayor Humason and his team have made $4 Million in cuts to the city budget. There are still tremendous debts that need to be paid. Currently Westfield owes $230 Million in unfunded OPEB retiree healthcare, over $90 Million in pension debt, and $75 Million in unfunded road repairs and maintenance. There is nothing else to cut on the city side of the budget without severely harming the ability of our public safety employees to do their job. I agree that in the long term savings can be found on the city side, but in the short term, due to years of neglect and kicking the can, in the here and now cuts need to be made to all city departments in order to get the city through this crisis.

The Administration has asked you to make at least $4 Million in cuts. This is a fair ask, as the School Department is the largest department in the city comprising more than half of the city budget, and that is just what is budgeted, not taking into account the services the city provides to the School Department.

I had a discussion with Superintendent Czaporowski on social media yesterday. The topic of how to pay for the cuts, and what to cut came up. He asked for ideas, here are several:

1)     Stop the contract payraises. The labor contracts clearly state: “The Superintendent reserves the right to withhold a regular increment or seniority step increase for the following reasons: a. Inefficiency, b. Insubordination, c. Conduct unbecoming a teacher, d. For any other reasons the Superintendent considers to be detrimental to the school system.

I would ask you all to consider that laying off 15 to 20 teachers and cutting programs is detrimental to our students and the school system, and a greater harm to students than would be rolling back 2% in raises for staff this year. This would save schools $1 Million this year. It’s not a difficult decision in time of crisis, and I am sure our teachers and staff would understand that due to COVID-19, and until we can get the city back onto sound fiscal footing we all need to do our part, and that they would be willing to give up raises to ensure the education of our students. 

2)     Layoff administrative staff, not student facing staff. While many may be good people and do their jobs well, the city cannot afford the heavy cost of high paid administrators. I would ask you to consider ending the positions of assistant-principals at our elementary schools. They are not a key position in ensuring our children’s education. This would save the city at least $750,000 per year in salary, pension, and benefit costs. 

3)     Close Fort Meadow school as has been discussed in the past. Move the Pre-K programs into one of our elementary schools. The savings that had been previously discussed were approximately $500,000.

4)     Charge a fee for those students that do not regularly use bussing services, but whose families have declined to waive the bussing requirement. 

These are just some ideas, and I know there are many other ways to save on costs. I would ask you to make the difficult choices you were all elected to do and meet the Mayor’s request for $4 Million in cuts. It is the right thing to do, and the Mayor has promised mid-year increases if the city sees additional monies from the state or federal government. Help our city through this crisis and do your fair share.

I would also ask the School Committee to consider that this same cycle of cuts will become a regular yearly occurrence when the City of Westfield hits our Tax Levy Ceiling in a few short years. Several of us that have served on the City Council have advised the School Department and School Committee that these type of issues were coming for years, the COVID-19 crisis has simply exposed the problems and accelerated the issues. These structural problems are not going away, and in fact will become worse in the coming years. The School Department while providing a valuable service, is not the only need in this city. As indicated above the city is in tough financial shape, and to ask for more money for raises or anything else at this point is not fair or feasible.

Please find ways to reduce costs going forward and reduce raises to quarter percentages after the city gets back on its feet. Westfield can no longer afford contracts that give out 6% and 7% raises to employees over a 3 to 4 year period. It is unfair to raise taxes every year on the citizens who before COVID-19, but particularly now are in difficult financial situations, in order to give public employees a raise. Many residents are not getting raises and in fact have lost their jobs and livelihoods, and are in danger of losing their businesses and homes. Many working-class and middle-class families, and senior citizens on fixed incomes are finding it difficult to afford to continue living in our city. I implore you to do your part to help them.

Thank you for your service and for your consideration of this letter.



Former City Councilor  

Andrew K. Surprise


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