WEST SPRINGFIELD — Councilors cut more than $1 million from the mayor’s proposed town budget on June 3, most of it from the School Department.

After rejecting a $1.6 million cut proposed by Town Councilor Daniel O’Brien, the council agreed to a series of line-item reductions offered by Councilor Anthony DiStefano. The school budget and total town budget would still be larger in fiscal year 2025 than in the current year, but not as much.

“When I’m sitting in a senior’s living room and they’re telling me ‘I can’t take another 5% tax increase’ … I think we have to do something as a council,” said District 2 Councilor Michael LaFlamme.

Councilors voted to eliminate seven positions for a combined savings of $586,373. DiStefano said when he challenged school administrators on the need for these positions, they indicated they could do without the new positions, a content facilitator and a math director. For the existing positions to be eliminated, three math interventionists and two reading interventionists, he asked for proof of their effect on student achievement, and “that explanation or data was not forthcoming.”

Unlike the other two positions, the interventionists are current employees. In FY24, their salaries were paid by ESSER, the COVID-19 pandemic relief funds voted by Congress in 2021. That federal aid runs out this year, so 13 positions that are already staffed were proposed to move into the School Department’s operating budget for the first time. DiStefano said he tried “to be surgical in how we approach balancing student needs with our responsibility of fiscal oversight,” and supported adding the other ESSER positions to the school budget, including a school nurse, librarian and several classroom educators.

In a separate vote, the council also eliminated $250,000 to fund four new teachers at West Springfield Middle School. DiStefano said school officials have failed to convince him that these positions are necessary. He said he’s been working on budgets for four years, and this was the first year the schools had highlighted middle school staffing as a priority.

(After The Reminder print edition went to press, Mayor William Reichelt announced that he would veto the council’s cuts to teaching positions.)

Both of these cuts passed 5-3, with councilors Brian Clune and Brian Griffin, and Council President Sean Powers, in opposition.

Griffin agreed that the school budget has been growing at an “unsustainable” rate, but blamed it on the influx of students from homeless and migrant families, a consequence of the state’s right-to-shelter law and the fact that West Springfield has more hotel rooms than most towns of its size.

He said it’s not in the town’s power to limit the number of new arrivals placed by the state, but cuts to the School Department would also affect the children from families that have been in the community for decades or generations.

Councilors voted 8-0 and 7-1 to support reductions to two line items that DiStefano characterized as errors, and 8-0 to eliminate a $75,000 legal settlements account that hasn’t been used for anything in the past two budget years.

Altogether, DiStefano’s cuts amounted to “just under a million dollars.” He noted that the School Department had been in line for a $5 million budget increase, so even with his cuts, it would still receive $4 million more in FY25 than in FY24.

Larger cut rejected

Before DiStefano presented his proposal, O’Brien had proposed a larger cut to match the $1.6 million already cut from the School Committee’s requested budget by the mayor before submitting it to the Town Council. O’Brien pointed to a list of new requested spending in the FY25 school budget totaling $2.05 million, and said that even if his further $1.6 million were cut, the schools would still have about $450,000 more than a level-services budget.

“This is not cutting the budget, this is cutting the increase in the budget, which has increased every year for the nine years I’ve been here,” O’Brien said. “I would like to see a level-funded budget, one year. We should level-fund this year, and then cut taxes next year. That should be the goal. This will be a small move in that direction.”

According to the budget document, $1.05 million of the “new requests” consists of 13 educators already working in West Springfield schools — the interventionist positions and others — whose salaries were previously funded by ESSER. A further $500,857 of the “new requests” is eight positions funded by other expiring grants or revenue sources that were filled in FY24 but not part of the FY24 budget.

Although they later voted to cut some of the ESSER positions, some councilors were wary to eliminate so many existing positions, which included English as a second language teachers and six pre-kindergarten educators, as the $1.6 million cut could require.

“I definitely don’t want to cut anything as far as what is needed by our students, what is absolutely baseline,” said District 1 Councilor William Forfa.

O’Brien’s proposed cut failed in a 5-3 vote, with only LaFlamme and District 3 Councilor Fred Connor supporting him.

Councilor Jaime Smith recused herself from discussions and votes on the school budget because she has a family member working for the department.

One other change

The council made just one other change to the mayor’s budget, eliminating $185,494 from the trash disposal account. The cut reflects the council’s recent vote, taken after the mayor’s budget had been finalized, to switch the town’s waste collection contract from Republic Services to a lower bidder, USA Waste & Recycling.

With the school and trash cuts, the council voted 9-0 to support a $127,614,503.33 budget. The mayor, whose proposed budget totaled $128,828,877.33, could veto the council’s cuts, which would force the council to reconsider its cuts or override the veto at its June 17 meeting. The new budget takes effect July 1.

mballway@thereminder.com | + posts