WESTFIELD – Westfield Public School administrators came before the Finance Committee for a budget hearing on Thursday, preceding the regular City Council meeting. Finance Committee chair Robert A. Paul, Sr. told school officials that Council members had six weeks to study the FY18 school budget.
Paul then invited Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski to give an opening statement. Czaporowski said the district started the budget process in December, identifying $2.9 million over last year that was needed for a level services budget. They held several community meetings, and sought to base the budget on district priorities.
Among the priorities that he listed were keeping class sizes to 20 for K-2, and to 25 for 3-12. He said the district would continue to pursue business and community partnerships for the schools, while strengthening academics. An Alternative Education program is in the budget, as well as a refocused Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (PBIS) program. Also in the budget is a plan to integrate technology in the classrooms, and tackle deferred maintenance needs.
Czaporowski said the current budget is based on the House of Representatives figure of $664,754 in Chapter 70 local aid, which has doubled from last year, and could still increase due to a higher Senate figure. He said the district is asking for an additional $710,261 over last year’s budget.
Business Manager Ron Rix then spoke in more detail about the financial picture. He said the district had negotiated out of severance, creating a bubble increase in FY18. Severance costs are $906,000 this year, (a $300,000 increase), but will go down to $576,000 next year, and $300,000 in two years.
Rix said there are also 25 fewer positions in the budget, which means $420,000 less to pay in benefits.
Paul asked Rix how many people are not yet hired for FY18. Human Resources director Paula Ceglowski said there are 50 positions to be hired. Paul estimated that 50 people meant approximately $3 million in salary and benefits. “They don’t have names, but they’re in the budget,” he said.
Rix said that Paul was correct, but many of the positions are required to be filled, including a principal and school nurses. He said other positions are necessary to keep class sizes at 20 and 25.
Finance Committee member Matthew T. VanHeynigen asked whether those 50 positions are separate from the 25 that are unfilled. Rix said they are a separate group.
Finance Committee member Dave Flaherty said he appreciated the cover sheet that Rix had prepared, but said he believed the city’s burden in benefits is $440,000 higher than indicated.
Ward 6 Councilor William Onyski asked how Special Education services would be affected in the budget.
Czaporowski explained there are changes in supervision for the program. “I believe this is going to be a more efficient model,” he said.
He said the district also saw an increase of 100 new English language learners this year, 55 of whom are refugees, and only exited 20 from the program due to new rules. Director of assessments Denise Ruszala said the district is also in jeopardy of losing a $31,000 federal grant for the program, which will have 260 students in it next year.
Rix said there are fewer state grants coming in, but the losses will be made up with Chapter 70 funds.
At-large Councilor Stephen Dondley thanked the district for the work on the budget, adding, “I believe education is the most important department that we fund.” He asked if the $1.5 million that had been cut was still needed to fund at a level services budget.
“I feel very comfortable with this budget,” Rix said, saying that it had been re-shifted and re-categorized in a positive way, and also contained funds for needed capital improvements. Czaporowski said that $125,000 a year was being added to continually replenish technology in the schools.
Rix said all schools will be fully wireless in September. He said they have supplied the elementary schools with IPad and Chromebooks on a 2-1 or 3-1 ratio.
Councilor Andrew Surprise said he understood that they were working on a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policy for the high schools, and encouraged them to enact it. “Half the students could bring in technology better than what you could buy them,” he said.
Ruszala said the district still needs to invest in Chromebooks for online testing. She said BYOD cannot be used for state tests.
Paul said there are good improvements in technology, but there didn’t seem to be a vision for putting the district at the top in technology.
“I think we have that blueprint now,” Rix said. While the plan had originally been to get a $2 million bond, he said they have built structures inside the budget with the help of the Technology Center. “I truly believe we’re on the cusp,” Rix said.
“What we just passed as a School Committee is exactly what we talked about 10 years ago,” said Kevin Sullivan, who served on the Tech Committee, adding, “It’s moving, just what we wanted to do.”
Rix said there is $125,000 to upgrade the technology, plus money in professional development to retrain teachers, and money to buy software instead of textbooks, for an approximate investment of $500,000. Flaherty said the $2 million bond Rix mentioned was in the top three considerations for the Finance Committee, but it never came out of their budget. “We could commit a certain amount of our bond capacity,” Flaherty said.
Rix responded that he is comfortable with the plan and the road map that the district has developed.
Paul said the bond would have opened up $150,000 to $500,000 of expenses in the district budget, and helped the city out as well.
In response to a question on the future costs of redistricting, Rix said there are two major options up for a vote by the School Committee on Monday, June 19 at 7:00 p.m. Rix said they will know more after the meeting. The hearing was then closed.
On Wednesday, June 21, a public hearing on the City of Westfield FY18 Budget is scheduled at 6:00 p.m. in City Council chambers, followed by a Committee of the Whole budget workshop. Final vote on the passage of the city budget will be held during a Special City Council meeting on Thursday, June 22 at 7 p.m. The public is welcome to attend any and all meetings. The FY18 budget is available online at www.cityofwestfield.org.