From the Desk of the Superintendent - October 2019

From the Desk of Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski, October 2019
Posted on 10/17/2019
Fall October

From the Desk of Stefan Czaporowski, Superintendent of Schools

Funding for public education is a fiscal and political “hot” topic not only in our community, but in all cities and towns across the state.  Over the last decade, school districts have had to contend with a variety of unfunded state and federal mandates and have attempted to mitigate their effects on local budgets.  Fortunately, this fall, the Massachusetts State Legislature has taken up the Student Opportunity Act, which will finally update the Chapter 70 state education aid formula to cities and towns for the first time in 25 years.  Specifically, the Student Opportunity Act will significantly help public school districts that serve low-income students while increasing state investment in other vital education aid programs such as out of district transportation, school buildings, English language learner programs, and special education. This bill applies an unprecedented $1.5 billion of new investments in Massachusetts public education, ensuring public schools have adequate resources to provide a high-quality education to students across the state.  The good news is that chapter 70 state education aid to Westfield for Fiscal Year 2021 is likely on the increase.

The budget process for the current fiscal year was typical in my experience.  Our planning did not begin in earnest until the Governor’s state budget proposal came out shortly after the New Year.  In early 2019, the Governor and State Legislature proposed an appropriation of additional chapter 70 state aid funds in fiscal year 2019-2020.  For Westfield, that meant an increase of anywhere from $1.9 - $2.5 million. Our Budget Development Team met with building principals, directors, and supervisors to review budget requests that added up to over $4 million.  However, to do our part to help minimize any local property tax increases, the School Department asked for a $1.9 million increase, which would return any additional chapter 70 state education aid back to the city. In early April 2019, the School Department presented its final budget proposal at a School Committee Finance Subcommittee meeting. Later that month, at our next School Committee Finance Subcommittee meeting, School Committee members reviewed the School Department’s 2019-2020 budget proposal line by line. After the Subcommittee’s careful review, the budget was approved as presented.  The budget proposal was then posted to our district website and distributed to each member of the City Council.

For city departments, including the schools, the next phase of the budget process was to attend City Council Finance Subcommittee meetings.  This year, these meetings took place in early-mid June. Again, the School Department presented our budget proposal. A few questions were asked and answered, and I felt that we had presented a responsible budget that addressed some of our more significant needs that were identified in our budget preparation process.  Additionally, the School Department did not utilize the entire chapter 70 state education aid increase with the goal of not adding any cost to local property taxpayers. 

The final budget approval meeting by the City Council for the City of Westfield took place at the end of June.  Many members of the School Department and School Committee were in attendance to show support for our budget proposal.  During public participation, an incumbent city councilor spoke up about the School Department’s budget. He indicated, as this councilor does every year, that he was going to propose a significant funding cut to the schools.  The reasoning for his remarks this year included that he did not believe there was anything “new” in the schools that required additional funding, and that because some of the School Department union contracts had not been settled, that we were “hiding” money.  At first, I was taken aback that any councilor would make these claims. Not only was our entire budget increase being funded by the state, there are also many new initiatives and programs that are benefitting students this school year. Our Special Education Department saw an increase of $1.4 million to expand special services. Technology, music, and art teachers were added at our elementary schools and both Westfield Intermediate and Westfield Middle Schools developed policies and procedures that will provide a Chromebook for each student.  Robotics and Lego League curriculum was added at the middle school and Electronics, TV/Radio, Hospitality, Healthcare, Engineering, and Criminal Justice pathways were added at our high schools. We also planned for several maintenance projects, including the paving of some of our driveways and parking lots, which would be deferred in order to cover any agreed upon contractual pay increases. This councilor’s remarks were simply not true.  

As the City Council meeting continued, another councilor remarked that the School Department’s budget had thirty-seven less employees so a cut to the budget could be absorbed.  Westfield, like many other school districts in Western Massachusetts, are having difficulty finding qualified candidates to fill vacancies, especially in Science, Technology, Engineering, Math and Special Education. As a result, we were forced to turn to contracted services with outside vendors to ensure that our student’s needs could be met.  So yes, we have less employees for the 2019-2020 school year, but we have more vendors providing services to our students. Oftentimes vendors are more costly than if we were able to hire our own faculty and staff however, by using contracted services this year the city has saved an additional $250,000 in health care costs. As the City Council meeting continued, I couldn’t help but question why the City Councilors recommending or supporting cuts to the School Department budget hadn’t reached out to me about our proposed budget or any potential cuts.  Looking back, in the four years that I have been Superintendent of Schools, the councilor that spoke at the beginning of the meeting during public participation has not once asked to speak to or meet with me about the budget or the cuts that he annually recommends.  

In the next few weeks, we will be getting a great deal of information with debates, community radio and local television interviews, and several newspaper articles about upcoming local elections.  The school budget has become such a “hot” topic that it is even a question being asked of all city council candidates on community radio interviews. A few weeks ago, a candidate for local office submitted a Letter to the Editor to the Westfield News indicating that there needs to be a full review on the expense side of the School Department budget. The reality is that the entire budget, including the expense side, is fully reviewed every spring by the School Committee’s Finance Subcommittee at several public meetings. This pledge is nothing more than a political tactic suggesting budgetary waste and this claim is not founded.  It is nothing more than “fake” news. Our budget and the process used to assemble our proposal are as transparent as possible.  

If the Student Opportunity Act becomes law, Westfield will continue to see an increase in Chapter 70 state education aid over the next seven years.  Both Senator Don Humason and Representative John Velis have reached out to me about the Student Opportunity Act and are in support of it. Our elected state representatives are optimistic about increases to Chapter 70 aid.  With these anticipated education aid increases, we will be able to more adequately fund special education and English learner programs, transportation and school building services, and further the support to the almost forty percent of our students that are considered economically disadvantaged. 

Regretfully, the residents benefitting from our work in the School Department from increases to Chapter 70 funding are in large part not able to vote.  The vast majority of our 5300 students are under the age of 18. The students of Westfield need elected officials that won’t attempt to arbitrarily cut the School Department budget in order to balance the City budget with funds intended for education. They need elected officials that don’t prioritize the funding of pickleball courts over education.  Our schools need elected officials that are willing to understand how the state’s mandates and short funding of public education over the last decade have really hurt our schools. We need elected officials that are willing to come to the table with school officials to talk about it. I am now and always have been happy to meet with any community stakeholder that reaches out to me about our budget or any other questions or concerns about the Westfield Public Schools.  

There are so many new and noteworthy opportunities for our students in the Westfield Public Schools.  In fact, our students have more options for learning now than ever yet we also know that there is so much more that we need to do.  I encourage all voters to look at each candidate that is running for an elected office and pay attention to their stance on supporting our students and schools.  On a side note, I am pleased to report that actual Chapter 70 state education aid for Fiscal Year 2019-2020 for Westfield came in at $2.5 million, yielding $600,000 over to the city.  Finally, some will make the claim that my purpose for writing this article is politically motivated, but that really isn’t my intention. I entered the field of education twenty-five years ago with the goal of making the educational experience better for our students.  I have always advocated for them and that is precisely my objective in writing this.

Stefan Czaporowski

Superintendent of Schools

Westfield Public Schools