WESTFIELD, NJ - The Westfield Board of Education unanimously adopted an $89.4 million budget for the 2010-2011 school year after its budget hearing Tuesday evening and restored three popular programs it had previously deleted from its spending plan due to a state aid reduction of $4.2 million for the town's schools.
Parents, at last week's introduction of the budget and again at Tuesday's hearing, stressed their support for drama programs and eighth grade sports to the children's overall education, and the board restored the programs by instituting a student activity fee whereby parents of students wishing to participate would have to pay a yearly fee to offset the costs of the programs.
According to School Business Administrator Robert A. Berman, if Westfield voters approve the spending plan at the April 20th Board of Education election property taxes on a home in the town assessed at $180,000 would rise by $306 for 2010 or 4% over the current tax levy.
One of those supporting restoration of the after-school programs was resident Amy Flack who said her son's participation in the fall play increased his interest in school by getting him more involved and even made him more willing to do his schoolwork. She asked the board to give the parents time to come up with alternative ways to fund the programs so they would not be cut.
Parent Michelle Weintraub wanted to know how the Westfield schools could institute afterschool activities with volunteer teachers and parents, as many charter schools do.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Margaret Dolan replied that at least four Westfield schools currently have volunteer programs and funding for drama and intramural and eighth grade sports possibly could be obtained by having the Parent Teacher Organizations run them and charging fees both to cover the costs of the programs themselves and possibly even as fundraising activities.
The exact details of the student activities fees plan must still be worked out, she said.
Settlement of a contract with the Westfield Education Association which will result in an approximately 3.9% average salary increase for town teachers one week before Governor Christopher Christie announced the drastic cut in funding to Westfield schools was questioned by Board of Education candidate Mitchell Slater.
A 12 to 15% saving in health care costs for employees in the district would not have been possible if the board had not signed the contract when it did, replied board President Ginny Leiz. If the pact had not been ratified, she added, the board would have been bound on July 1 by its current contract, which does not include the healthcare cost savings and other givebacks.
"We could not have crafted a budget for presentation this evening without knowing our costs for the following year," board member Richard Solomon. "We also migrated the teachers out of their previous expensive medical plan into one with more reasonable costs. Previously, only 180 teachers...shared in the cost of their healthcare, now all Westfield teachers pay a share of their costs."
He added the board was under no pressure to settle the contract because of the impending announcement of Governor Christie's budget.
The savings brought about by the contract, Mr. Solomon added, resulted in teacher salary increases that, in actuality, average about 1 to 2% rather than 3.9%.
Town teachers, however, were urged by board member David Finn to support a proposal reportedly being considered by the Governor to allocate additional funds (possibly $100,000 for Westfield) to districts whose teachers agree to a one-year salary freeze.
"The state financial scenario puts us on the brink of compromising the high quality of educational standard which Westfield residents have come to expect," he said. "I urge the teachers to tell their leaders to support this freeze and pull us back from the brink."
Westfield Education Association President Kim Schumacher replied that Montclair's teachers had agreed to a salary freeze and still saw 80 school staff positions cut. She said the Westfield board could not guarantee no school personnel would be cut if the teachers agreed to the salary freeze.
"I know the board worked hard to reduce this budget based on the numbers it was first presented," she added. "The board was not aware it was going to have 90% of its funding cut. There is something wrong when schools like we have in Westfield with such hardworking staff members receive less than 1% of their state funding."
She added the health care settlement would save $4 million over the life of the new contract and pledged the school staff members would continue to work with the board to find additional ways of saving money in operating the schools.
Board member Gary McCready also warned the public and the board not to be too quick to hop on the bandwagon for the Governor's proposed Constitutional amendment to limit yearly property taxes to 2.5 % because this could further tie the board's hands in future budgets. He also said he had lived through the bad effects the Proposition 13 property tax rollback had had on California schools.
Mrs. Leiz also said Education Commissioner Bret Schundler had told Westfield its schools would only receive about a $750,000 cut in aid and the cut had turned out to be $4.2 million.
She congratulated Dr. Dolan for making the additional cuts in light lof the drastic cut in state aid, especially in light of the fact the state only gave schools about a week to do so and there was not much likelihood a requested delay in deadlines for finalizing school budgets would pass the legislature.