WESTFIELD – A joint sub-committee meeting of the School Committee was held on Wednesday to delve deeper into redistricting options for Westfield schools next year in order to close a budget gap of $2.9 million. The meeting of the Finance and Curriculum & Instruction sub-committees was held in the auditorium of Westfield Technical Academy to accommodate interested parents and staff, with 75-100 in attendance.
Kevin Sullivan, chair of Finance opened the meeting, asking Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski to start with a presentation on the four options still on the table, after eliminating three at the last meeting. The presentation is now available on the district website at www.schoolsofwebsite.org under “Exploring the options.” Czaporowski started with a look at current school populations, and projected enrollments for next year. Russell Elementary has the lowest enrollment of the seven elementary schools, at 187. Only the first option would keep Russell open next year, requiring redistricting of students for the other options being discussed.
After going through all the different possibilities, Czaporowski said he would like to start by asking the School Committee to eliminate the second option, which would disperse the Russell students into the six elementary schools next year.
“It’s fair to say moving 187 students into the elementary schools is not practical,” Czaporowski said. He said that would require finding five classrooms in order to keep class sizes down, which are not available.
Czaporowski also said it was not optimal to make the changes next year. “If we had more time to plan carefully, to take all these things into consideration,” he said, to applause from the people in attendance.
“Even if we go that way for next year and keep it the way it is now, that doesn’t mean that there’s not a deficit, and there won’t be cuts,” said School Committee member Ramon Diaz, Jr.
“For me, the last two options is what we’re looking at,” Czaporowski added. “One is more expensive. Are we looking at this for cost, or what’s better for the students,” he asked.
The last two options to which the superintendent was referring are to expand the middle schools, either having both accommodate grades 5-8, or to have one as a 5-6 intermediate school, and the other a 7-8 middle school. Czaporowski said right now they are thinking that South Middle School would be for grades 5-6 and North Middle School for 7-8. That configuration, which might make 5th grade parents more comfortable, could require a substantial increase in busing costs, taking away from the projected $700,000 that would be saved by closing Russell.
Czaporowski added that in the less expensive option, which would be to make both middle schools 5-8, the younger students would be on separate floors of the building, as 6th graders are now.
Mayor Brian P. Sullivan, who serves as chair of the School Committee, said there is potential to keep Russell open for one or two more years.
Czaporowski said if that could happen, that would give the district the time to plan.
“I think what we’re hearing is that we need more time,” said School Committee vice-chair Cynthia Sullivan. She said she would want to make sure the process continues if that were to happen, noting the push and pull for the students at Russell is hard.
“We’re almost at February break, and we’re experiencing online MCAS for the first time,” Czaporowski said, admitting that the $700,000 savings from closing Russell jumps out at him, also.
“The reason we started these meetings is budgetary. What I would like to see is a set plan this year, next year, and going forward. The teachers and stakeholders in the school are certainly going to have a say and be involved as we move forward,” Kevin Sullivan said.
“I was in this camp already, about looking at the next year,” Diaz said. He said he would like to look at the 5-6, 7-8 option more closely, and see where the cuts would come from.
At the end of the discussion, Cynthia Sullivan made a motion to take Option 2, which would redistribute Russell students into the six elementary schools off the table. Both the Finance and Curriculum & Instruction sub-committees voted in favor of eliminating that option.
The meeting then opened to comments from those in attendance, who were asked to line up to speak.
First to speak was Diane Hodges, who talked about the district’s report card, which she said is 64 out of a passing grade of 75. She asked who is responsible for that grade, and said she believes the School Committee is limited by funding, which called the responsibility of the City Council.
“Our voices have to be raised beyond these walls. We need to ask the City Council for more funds,” Hodges said. She asked for the people present to sign a petition to that effect, to prevent the closing of any school, to fund current levels of education and new creative initiatives that would directly impact lower scores. Hodges also said the people who came to the school budget meetings should also attend the City Council budget meetings.
“Putting 5th graders and 8th graders on a bus together is a huge concern,” said parent Carrie Callan, who was next to speak.
Rich Roy, a father of 3-year-old twins, said he bought his house because there is a neighborhood school. “My children are going to Highland in 5th grade, they’re not going to go down to the middle school,” Roy said. He said he himself went to 6th grade at Highland.
David Schroth brought up the issue of the Ashley Street school building project. He asked when the Supreme Judicial Court would be hearing the appeal, and the mayor responded in April.
Schroth said a long-term solution is needed, and it might be to look for another location.
The superintendent said that the Ashley Street school project was approved by the state at 64% reimbursement. He said if the process were to start over, the state might only reimburse at 52% on the dollar, which makes a huge difference for a $30-$40 million project.
Mayor Sullivan also responded, saying he was tired of people saying the city should change their plans.
“We won in district court, we won in appeals court. We now have the hearing. I’d love it if some of you people asked the other people, how many times do you have to lose?” the mayor said.
Schroth said he didn’t know about the reimbursement, which sheds more light on the project. He asked what percentage of the funding needs to be cut.
Kevin Sullivan responded that based on level funding, they need to cut $2.9 million, or 5% of the budget. “Every year we’ve had to cut numbers. We’re just earlier because it involves cutting schools,” Sullivan said.
Czaporowski said the district is looking at all opportunities for cuts, but when 80% of the budget is staffing and they have to cut 5%, he implied that staff will have to be cut.
Angie Lamothe, a parent with children in Russell, said she chose to go to Russell when Juniper Park closed, with a lot of unknowns. “Parents are happy they made that choice,. The staff is amazing there,” Lamothe said, asking the School Committee to consider that and the bonds the children have made with them, even if they choose to redistribute the students.
“We take students first in making these decisions. We want our students to learn and do well, and our teaching staff,” said Jeffrey Gosselin, chair of the Curriculum & Instruction sub-committee. Later, Gosselin added that the budget process was started early in order to balance the budget and have minimum layoffs.
“We knew it was going to be a tough year,” said Kevin Sullivan after the meeting. He said there has been talk of more local aid from Boston this year. “Hopefully, there will be better numbers coming,” he added.