|Westfield cuts $1.3 million, while Agawam squabbles over $181,000|
By Katelyn Gendron
Reminder Assistant Editor
For many cities and towns, their School Department budgets consume over 50 percent of the overall operating budgets each fiscal year. For two mayors struggling to complete their first fiscal budgets, the School Department continues to tip the scales too far.
Last week, Westfield Mayor Michael Boulanger requested that the School Department cut $1.3 million from its fiscal year 2009 (FY09) budget, while School Department officials and some members of the School Committee and City Council in Agawam squabbled over Mayor Susan Dawson's decision to cut $181,000 from the department proposed $34.1 million FY09 budget.
During a meeting of the Westfield School Committee's Finance Subcommittee, last Wednesday, Finance Subcommittee Chair Kevin Sullivan and Superintendent Shirley Alvira reviewed the proposed cuts with the School Committee.
Originally, Boulanger had requested that $2.3 million be cut from the budget. However, realizing the devastating impact such a huge cutback would inflict upon the department, he said he was able to find additional monies in the city budget to lower the amount of cuts needed by the School Department.
"We agonized over every single cut," Alvira said. "I'm looking at reductions that will barely touch the classrooms."
The cuts, endorsed unanimously by the School Committee, include 13 staff reductions, closure of the HVAC program at Westfield Vocational Technical High School (WVTHS), postponing the purchase of new calculus, French and math textbooks, postponing the purchase of a maintenance vehicle until 2010, the elimination of late buses, maintaining level funded expenses for all schools and transferring the expenses of snow removal, unemployment and workers compensation to the city budget.
Hilary Weisgerber, director of WVTHS explained that in light of financial shortfalls, the termination of the HVAC program has been moved up to this academic year, as opposed to it originally scheduled date of the 2009-10 academic year. She noted that the four students currently enrolled in the program were given four options to continue their HVAC education, three of which will continue at Springfield Technical Community College and one is returning to his or her home school district.
Alvira noted that the Tech Center funding, totaling $190,000 will also be eliminated from the School Department's budget but will be paid for under the city's operating budget.
"We've minimized the impact [on the School Department] as much as possible," Sullivan said, referring to the request for $2.3 million a "gorilla."
Boulanger said that "further tweaking" of the School Department's budget might be needed prior to his delivery of the city's FY09 budget to the City Council on Thursday. He noted that the transfer of expenses for snow removal, unemployment and workers compensation from the School Department's budget to the city budget was not an expense he'd counted on and will have to work to find additional monies for such expenses.
Despite strong opposition from members of the Agawam School Committee and Superintendent Mary Czajkowski, Mayor Susan Dawson released a memorandum on May 30, stating that she is unable to support or fund the committee's requested 6.02 percent budget.
Two budgets were put forth by the School Department, the $34.1 million FY09 budget, an increase of 6.02 percent over FY08 and a slightly trimmed budget, only $181,000 less, a 5.45 percent increase over FY08.
Czajkowski said Dawson had asked her to trim the budget wherever possible, therefore creating the 5.45 budget, however, at no time did the department ever endorse the budget. On March 10, the City Council's School Department Budget Committee voted to endorse the 6.02 budget and later that month the School Committee also voted to endorse the same budget.
Czajkowski explained that the 5.45 budget excludes purchasing middle school reading textbooks and junior high school foreign language textbooks, also the replacement of audio-video equipment for the AV class and the restoration of the middle school library secretary position. She added that by not purchasing the foreign language textbooks, the school will be short one classroom worth of books, requiring them all to share.
"I'm disappointed," Czajkowski told Reminder Publications of the mayor's decision. "I would have hoped that she would have been able to restore the funding."
Czajkowski explained that of the 5.45 percent increase, approximately four percent is allocated to contractual increases.
"While I respect her decision, the budget that I did put forward is a needs-assessed budget," Czajkowski said. "I feel that the [6.02] budget was fiscally responsible and educationally sound."
Dawson explained that she would consider submitting a supplemental budget to the City Council for those "key items" left out of the budget, should funding become available.
"I've done the best possible job that I could to provide a balanced budget for the entire town," Dawson said. "I funded a 5.45 increase [over FY08] that was fiscally responsible to all taxpayers, while taking into consideration the needs of our children."
School Committee member Diane Juzba, also chair of the School Committee's Finance and Budget Subcommittee, said, "I'm very disappointed. I thought she [the mayor] would have at least put in the money for the textbooks . it's very frustrating because we need those books. Our job [as a School Committee] is to fight for the schools. Our job is not to look at the whole [town] budget. I would be irresponsible if I didn't fight for those textbooks."
Juzba added that she and the other members of the Finance and Budget Subcommittee will review revolving accounts and explore other options to fund the textbooks.
At a City Council budget subcommittee meeting last week, councilors Donald Rheault and Robert Rossi said they agreed with the mayor's decision to fund the 5.45 budget.
Rheault asked why the department "could not absorb $181,000 out of a $33 million budget?"
The public hearing of the town's FY09 budget will take place at the middle school on June 16.