The 2011-2012 proposed school budget is balanced. Not one academic, co-curricular, fine arts, sports or extracurricular program has been cut. Now we need everyone who cares about the education of our children to pull together and vote to pass the budget.
This year the administration has again cut operational expenses, the Board has worked hard to again contain costs, the teachers have helped to fill a gap by voluntarily making concessions, and now, in my opinion, it is up to everyone in the community - including every person on the Board and those running for the Board, to support our students by voting for the budget.
Let’s take a minute and understand what will happen if the budget is voted down. If the budget is voted down, the Town Council assumes control and decides how much to cut. The last time the budget was voted down the Council cut $738,000. That was in 2005, before the Great Recession.
It is anybody’s guess what the Town Council would do if the budget was voted down, but I fear they might cut much more than they did last time. They have the power to cut $1 million, $2 million, or even more. This year’s proposed budget is fragile. There is no fat. It is bare bones. Every million dollar cut is equal to 14 teachers. At last week’s Board meeting we discussed enrollment. We discussed five elementary school classes, three second grade classes and two first grade classes, where the class size is projected to be too large. We talked about finding the ability within the proposed budget to add teachers to bring these numbers down. If the budget is not passed we will not be able to do this.
When we began our Strategic Planning process in 2009, we surveyed the community to set priorities. The number one priority of our residents is small class size. That priority was unchanged from the 2003 community survey. Over the last few years, the class size in our elementary classes has been rising as we have tried to continue to do “more with less”. This year we have classes of 24 and 25 students in first grade. When I first started on the Board we did not have such a large class size in our youngest classes. In fact, my first vote on the Board six years ago was against a resolution to cut elementary teachers that would have caused class size to go above 23.
If the budget is not passed the administration will not be able to hire an additional guidance counselor at the intermediate level to help with the large incoming sixth grade. It is uncertain if the administration will be able to provide class size of 24-26 for the enrollment bubble class at Edison as we are now planning to do. The administration also might have to balance the class size at the two middle schools by reallocating instructional resources away from Roosevelt.
If the budget is not passed it is clear that extracurricular sports and fine arts programs will be considered for cuts. Currently, they are being maintained by the student activity fee instituted last year. Also, at last week’s Board meeting the Superintendent explained that the administration is currently looking at electives at the high school to determine if they have sufficient numbers to run. If the budget goes down the number of high school electives will clearly be cut.
After what we have done in the last two years to control costs, there is simply nothing left to cut which would not have an immediate, severe and irreversible affect on the quality of a Westfield education. Over the last two years we have eliminated 54 positions. We cut 24 supervisors, teachers, secretaries, computer technicians, custodians and paraprofessionals in 2009 - 2010. We cut one accountant and 29 coordinators, teachers, counselors, librarians, custodians, secretaries and paraprofessionals in 2010 - 2011. In 2009-2010 we eliminated 41 after school programs.
Compared with the current year, next year’s proposed budget is based on a 6.5 % cut in transportation costs, a 4.7 % cut in child study team expenses, a 2.9 % cut in operations, a 1.1 % cut in athletics, a 5.4 % cut in our maintenance budget and a reduction of 1.9 % in our debt service expense. There is nothing left to cut that will not deeply hurt the quality of our schools.
Westfield’s schools produce students having the highest SAT average scores of any Union County public school. And we produce such excellent results while spending much less than the state average.
I understand that while our priority is to maintain the quality of Westfield’s schools, we must also keep taxes low. We are proposing a budget for next year that raises costs only 1.3 % over what it is for the current year. Legally, the District was entitled to ask for a waiver and exceed the new annual restrictions on tax increases. I opposed this and the Board did not ask for a waiver and is not asking the public to vote for more than what the basic cap allows.
I ask for your vote on Wednesday, April 27. I also hope you vote to pass the budget.