WESTFIELD, NJ — The Westfield Public School District’s tentative 2020-21 budget would include a 2% increase in tax levy and an approximately $340,000 reduction in staff costs, the school district's business administrator said Tuesday.

During her presentation to the school board, Business Administrator Dana Sullivan highlighted an approximately $1.06 million gap between anticipated revenue increases and costs. Revenue for the district is expected to increase by about $2.45 million, Sullivan said. The majority of this, $2.03 million, would be funded through the tax levy increase, while the remaining amount would come from increases in subscription busing and projected state aid.

Meanwhile, the district anticipates approximately $3.51 million in expenditure increases, most of which comes from increases in salaries and special services costs.

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Click here to view the full budget presentation.

Despite these increases, Sullivan said, the district is still spending efficiently. The average cost per pupil in the district is $13,803, compared to the state average $15,809 per pupil. The district spends 61.73% of this cost per pupil directly on instruction costs, Sullivan said.

Why are costs increasing?

Sullivan said the overall operating budget increase is about 2% over last year, which is consistent with previous years. 

“Areas that are largely out of our control are increasing much more than 2% a year,” Sullivan said, including special education, out of district tuition and transportation. The costs in these areas for 2020-21 are as follows:

  • Special Education: $27,163,470 (26.36% increase since 2013-14)
  • Out of District Tuition: $6,499,993 (38.99% increase since 2013-14)
  • Transportation: $3,914,034 (43.6% increase since 2013-14)

When discussing transportation, Sullivan explained that neither the number of students being bused or number of bus routes has changed drastically, but that costs have increased because of higher rates set by bus companies.

“Bus companies just can tell us that we don’t want to renew this contract, and then we have no choice but to go out to bid,” Sullivan said. “The same bus company ends up being the low bidder at double the cost, and there’s nothing we can do, it’s completely out of our control. That’s the state law.”

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“The cost of routes has gone up, just because there’s no bus drivers and the bus companies can do it,” she said. “They can’t make money in other places, because they don’t have the drivers to do it, so the limited drivers they have, they’re increasing their costs.”

Sullivan said the district considered purchasing buses, but that this would not have been cost effective.

“If it could help us with athletics, it would make sense. But it doesn’t because athletics starts before the last kids get home,” Sullivan said. “We can’t tier it in such a way that it makes sense.”

How will the district offset costs?

In order to balance the budget, the district must make approximately $1.06 million in reductions to the budget, Sullivan said.

The district is proposing a $340,837 reduction of staff costs, along with reductions in transportation, technology, utilities and special education costs. The staff reductions may include layoffs, Sullivan said.

“When you’re talking about making reductions of a million dollars, it is impossible to make reductions that don’t include staff,” Sullivan said. “It’s a very labor-intensive industry that we’re in, and that’s just the reality.”

“It could be layoffs for people,” she said. “It would be the newest people that would be laid off because that’s the way we have to do it.”

Superintendent Margaret Dolan said the district is examining the current personnel list to ensure every staff member is assigned effectively. “We’ve been scouring personnel and how they’re assigned,” Dolan said.

How does the board feel?

“This is the first time in a while … where I’ve felt a little panicked,” said board member Gretchan Ohlig. “It’s the first time that we’ve talked about staff reductions in a while,” she added later.

“It’s more on-edge than we’ve been in five or six years for sure,” said board member Brendan Galligan.

Sullivan explained that the proposed reductions would not have any drastic effects on the district.

“I don’t think anyone has to panic. I don’t think we’re looking at reductions that are going to cause a panic,” Sullivan said. “I’m not making any reductions that I think will be a major problem as far as being able to sustain the budget, and we certainly aren’t looking at reductions in staff that are going to be drastic.”

What happens next?

The state is expected to release state aid figures to the district Thursday. Sullivan will then factor these into the budget and present the tentative budget to the board during its next meeting Tuesday, March 10. At this meeting, the board will vote on the tentative budget, which will then be sent to the county.

The board will vote on the final budget April 28.

The next Westfield Board of Education meeting will be held on Tuesday, March 10 at 7:30 p.m. at 302 Elm Street in Westfield.

The full presentation of this year’s budget, as well as previous years’ budgets, is available on the district website.

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