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Public school system works tirelessly to overcome shortfall

By Katelyn Gendron-List

Reminder Assistant Editor

WESTFIELD In order to combat this year's deficit the Westfield public school system has banded together to secure additional grant funding to make sure they are providing their students with the best education possible during the 2007-08 school year.

Recently the Westfield public school system was awarded $141,000 from the Department of Education Foundation Reserve Program otherwise known as the "Pothole Grant."

According to Shirley Alvira, superintendent of Westfield public schools, this year's shortfall was $824,468 but with the additional Pothole funding the deficit now stands at $191,466.

"This year we've been in dire straights and this is a very important contribution to what were are going through this year," Donna Toupin, director of Grants for Westfield public schools said. "It came at a very good time."

Upon receiving the job as superintendent in July, Alvira said she immediately set up meetings with the acting mayor, School Committee, City Council, school principals and various other departments in order to find ways to minimize the shortfall.

"There were some mistakes made in accounting," Alvira said of the deficit. "Some mistakes were made in basic adding and subtracting."

Alvira added that she has been in intensive conversations with the School Committee and they have taken an in depth look at the school system to find creative ways of budgeting and scheduling to offset the deficit and prevent shortfalls in the future.

Toupin said that even though the Massachusetts Department of Education awarded their schools with funding through the Pothole Grant she does not stop writing grants or looking for new grant opportunities throughout the year.

According to Toupin, Westfield public schools was awarded funds in two of the 10 categories of the Pothole Grant: Category E, Federal Impact Aid, and Category J, Decline in Enrollment.

Qualifications for Category E, refer to school systems that teach students whose parents are employed by the military or work on federal property, or live in federally subsidized housing.

Category J of the grant requires that the school system have a decline in enrollment. Since last year, Alvira said, there has been a decline in enrollment by 100 students.

Unlike other grants, Toupin said, the Pothole Grant has no specifications on exactly what the school systems must use the funding for, only that they use the money for broad educational purposes.

"Once we send in our applications we don't lobby and ask our state representatives to do anything," Toupin said. "It's up to the state to determine if they can help you. When this goes in it's like a wing and a prayer."

Unfortunately, Toupin added, the Pothole Grant is only a one-time award. But this has not stopped the Grant Department from seeking out other grants or the possibility of being awarded funding in other categories.

Toupin said that thus far they have applied for 25 federal grants, 10 state grants and 10 private grants. The overall total of grant money to the Westfield public school system is currently at $6,339,401.

"For my own school anything that is going to sure-up the shortfall and assist in that gap is money that is not taken away from our operating expenses," Hilary Weisgerber, director of Westfield Vocational Technical High School said. A Vo Tech school is expensive to run and any infusion of money will certainly help."

But other changes need to be made, State Rep. Donald Humason Jr., R-Westfield said. He added that there have been calls to update the Education Reform Act of 1993, which created a formula for funding per student enrollment. While the Pothole Grant was created to help supplement the rising costs of school operation, the Chapter 70 formula and Pothole funding is simply not enough, he added.

Sen. Michael Knapik, R-Westfield said that he is hoping that Gov. Deval Patrick will reveal some revenue sharing for education in the FY 2009 budget.

"People need to understand the seriousness of the fiscal issues confronting Westfield," Knapik said. "The state aid has slowed and local contributions have slowed."

Regardless of the current challenges facing the Westfield public school system, Alvira said that she and city officials are committed to finding ways of solving the shortfall and strategizing to overcome the hurdles as they strive to provide a quality education for all students.