School Committee sends $64 million budget to City Council

Westfield School Committee Vice-Chair Timothy O’Connor. (THE WESTFIELD NEWS FILE PHOTO)

WESTFIELD – The School Committee on May 19 rejected three scenarios to cut the district budget by $500,000, $750,000 and $1,000,000 — the number requested by Mayor Donald F. Humason Jr. in the first review – and voted 4 to 3 to accept the $64,396,647 budget as presented.

Before the discussion began, Humason asked to take out of order a vote on two early retirement incentives to be offered to teachers and assistant principals and supervisors, saying the resulting savings might reduce the budget request.

The two memoranda of agreement (MOA) with the Westfield Educators Association, which were approved by the committee, were for up to 10 Unit A members to take an early retirement incentive of $15,000 if they submit a letter of resignation after May 17, and retire before July 1. Teachers would have to have 10 years of service or more in Westfield Public Schools in order to take the incentive. The second agreement offered the same incentive to up to three assistant principals and supervisors.

Human Services Director Paula Ceglowski said when asked that she has heard that six teachers might take advantage of the incentive, and an unknown number of administrators, for an anticipated savings of $200,000 for the district, but said she wouldn’t know until resignations are turned in.

This retirement incentive is different than one currently in the state legislation that would have allowed teachers nearing retirement age or length of service to “purchase” up to five years of service and five years of age, in order to retre at the full 80 percent of retirement. Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski said he had heard that the bill which was filed has had no movement in the legislature.

Before the vote, Committee member Cindy Sullivan said her problem is that the incentive, which was also offered last year, seemed to be offered as a way to balance the budget, causing teachers to make last minute retirement decisions.

School Committee Vice Chair Timothy O’Connor said the district was in a pandemic last year, and still is. “In times when we have the opportunity to alleviate some of the challenges fiscally that we’ve had, we try to do creative things to get there. I’m going to support it,” he said.

Returning to the budget discussion, Business Administrator Shannon Barry presented the three different scenarios of cuts and the impact on the district, which included eliminating unfilled positions, a reduction in the amount for technology, and some cuts to educators and support staff in the two higher scenarios.

Humason raised the potential savings from the MOAs just passed as a starting point for reductions. However, several committee members rejected the idea of cutting positions and technology.

“I am not voting to cut anything out of the budget. We need to be very mindful that we’re still in a pandemic . . . We need to be prepared when students walk into the building, fully staffed,” said Cindy Sullivan, adding that she knows what their responsibility is, having served for 11 years. “I think the school district has done a great job in justifying why we need the proposed amount. We need to put students and staff first. Anybody losing their job right now after 14 months is shameful. I’m not seeing it in any other district. This year we’re being irresponsible and not thinking ahead to September.”

Humason said that he will be presenting the budget to the Westfield City Council on May 27. “I hope the Senate will come up with a higher Chapter 70 amount than the governor and the House. There may well be more local aid coming, I’m hopeful, between that and the savings we might be able to gain on early retirements will reduce the need to make some of these cuts,” he said, adding that he and City Auditor Vicki Moro went back to several departments and asked them to make cuts to their increases. “I also intend to ask for $1.5 million from free cash,” he said.

“I understand where we are as a city, we’ve got to take a look at the funding that’s already in. Those cuts, — teachers, technology – we fought for technology and one-on-one devices for 10 years. We just finally got there, [and are] looking to cut $160,000 from technology when we have chromebooks that are five years old. Cutting $1 million doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t think a cut that big can be sustained,” said Finance chair Ramon Diaz, Jr.

Diane Mayhew agreed. “We are seeing a school funding crisis unlike anything we’ve seen before. In this crisis, I feel that we need to spend more money than we’re used to spending, because of the learning loss that has already occurred. I also see our budget as an investment — there is always a correlation between the funding and outcome. I believe this school budget shows the district’s priority and spending plan, I believe it’s a fiscally sound budget. I don’t like this hanging in the balance for some of these people, and then say we can bring them back. It plays with people’s lives. I just don’t like it,” she said.

Cindy Sullivan said that she’s pretty sure the superintendent has already made cuts to the budget. “There are a lot of things we can’t do because we don’t have the money. The bottom line is, during a pandemic communities need to prioritize, and at the top of the list is education,” she said.

Committee member Bo Sullivan said it also impacts community development, because big businesses look first to the educational system before investing in a city. He also asked about the amount in free cash and stabilization. Humason said there is $3.5 million in free cash. Sullivan said the council voted to put $4.3 million in stabilization in December. “I think there’s about $8 million sitting there, and now we need nine votes on the council to do anything. We’re sitting here looking to cut $1 million out of a school budget that’s only about $300,000 more than two years ago. I fail to see how this is budgeting for a purpose . . . when we have all that money sitting in reserves,” he said, adding, “I can’t support $1 million, and I have trouble supporting $500,000. I fail to see how this is smart budgeting.”

O’Connor asked whether the positions that would be cut would be in the $200,000 range of savings anticipated from the early retirement incentive. Barry said that $365,000 in positions would be cut.

“I wish we could add $5 million more to the budget,” O’Connor said, but added if they go for a lower reduction, he wanted to make sure they would not be laying off any positions.

Mayhew then made a motion to bring forward the FY22 budget of 64,396,647 to the mayor and city council.

“To be clear, that is the number with no cuts at all. We understand then that this number will be presented to the city council which has the right to make cuts without our involvement,” Humason said. He then asked if they would include at least a $200,000 offset based on early retirement.

Mayhew said she would be willing to amend the motion to include the offset, but O’Connor suggested taking the vote on the full budget first. The motion then passed at the full amount, with Cindy Sullivan, Heather Sullivan, Diaz and Mayhew voting yes, and O’Connor, Bo Sullivan and Humason voting no.

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