School budget review gets off to a rocky start

WESTFIELD – The School Committee May 4 hosted what will be the first of two budget reviews sessions with a heated start that had members challenging Mayor Donald F. Humason Jr.’s initial suggestion that the budget request of $64,396,647 be reduced by $1 million.

The school budget request represents a 1.9 percent increase to the city.

School Committee members Cindy Sullivan and Heather Sullivan questioned why the mayor had not had a conversation with the superintendent before the meeting, rather than “blindsiding” him in public at the budget review.

“Last year at this time when we brought up the budget, and the mayor and the auditor were asking us to cut 50 percent of what the city gives to the budget. We did what we could do,” said Cindy Sullivan, adding they were able to make up part of the cuts through the CARES Act and funds from Free Cash, together totaling $2.6 million, neither of which are on the table at this time.

“The needs haven’t gone away, but that money has. The needs of the children have gotten worse. They need to be educated, we need to take care of their social emotional needs. We need to remember the battle we had in cutting the budget last year, and I really don’t want to go down that road this year,” Sullivan added.

Humason said he had asked all the departments for level-funded budgets except for contractual increases.

“I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news. The City Council is looking to present the budget on May 20,” Humason said, adding, “We don’t know what the final number of our local aid will be. It’s a moving target. We don’t have all the money that the departments are asking for. We all assumed there would be more money from the Commonwealth and local receipts, but there [isn’t] enough.”

Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski said last year’s school district budget included a ten percent cut in Chapter 70 local aid, based on an anticipated statewide cut of ten percent. In December, the state restored Chapter 70 funding to the previous year’s level.

Czaporowski asked the mayor if that ten percent restoration of funds intended for the school district, which he said would have been $370,000, went into the general fund instead of going to the district, and became part of $4 million transferred by the City Council into stabilization.

“I don’t feel that we were level funded,” Czaporowski said. Humason said he would check on the Chapter 70 receipts with the auditor.

Also discussed were the various COVID-related funds that will be coming to Westfield, which both the mayor and superintendent said have many strings attached, and can not be used to make up for budget deficits. Many of the details of the anticipated funding are not known at this time.

“We’ll meet again. We did it last year. We’re going to have to figure it out,” said Finance committee chair Ramon Diaz, Jr.

School Committee Vice-Chair Tim O’Connor asked whether May 20 would give them enough time to figure out what funding is coming their way. “So the City Council is expecting us to present a budget before we know what monies are coming in. Then we have to go higher, we don’t go lower,” he said, adding, “It’s destructive to our staff and administration to hold cut positions over their heads when it turns out we don’t have to.”

Diaz suggested that maybe the Council could delay the process until the district could get a real number. He said a second meeting to review the district budget will be scheduled before May 20.

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