WESTFIELD — Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski and Business Administrator Shannon Barry outlined proposed cuts in the fiscal year 2025 School Department budget in front of a packed gallery at a special meeting of the School Committee on April 9. A second public hearing and budget presentation is scheduled for April 29 at 6 p.m. in the Westfield High School auditorium.

“We put the budget together with the numbers that we have,” Czaporowski said, adding that he is hopeful that more funding will be coming through the state budget process.  Currently, the proposed FY25 budget which includes widespread cuts is $71.9 million, a $2 million increase over FY24.

Czaporowski said the priorities for the district are to maintain student-to-teacher ratios at 20-1 in grades kindergarten through second, and 25-1 in grades 3-12; to improve Tier 1 instruction of all students; to provide targeted supports for all students below grade level benchmarks; to expand full-day preschool coverage; and to open the Westfield River Elementary School in January 2025.

Going through the numbers, Barry said there are 4,808 students in Westfield, down 28 students from FY23. She said that number reflects an uptick in preschool students.

She cited significant changes in the student population, especially in the high needs categories of “first language not English”, English language learners, students with disabilities and low-income students that together now comprise 59% of the student population. “The population has shifted,” Barry said.

The budget is funded from a combination of Chapter 70 state aid, the local city contribution, and special revenues, including federal and state grants and revolving funds.

One stressor on the FY25 budget is the lower-than-expected Chapter 70 funding from the state as reflected in the governor’s budget.  Last year, Westfield saw a 10% increase in Chapter 70 funds. This year, the increase is less than 2%.  Barry said 75% of districts across the commonwealth received an increase of less than 3% in Chapter 70 funding.

Driving costs this year are step- and contractual increases for union members, transportation increases and the end of ESSER emergency relief funds, according to Barry.

A new schoolwide bus transportation contract for the next three years has not yet been settled. Last month, the School Committee approved the new three-year special education in-district transportation contract of $6,331,817, a 23% increase of more than $1 million over three years.

Westfield Public Schools received a total of nearly $17 million in three ESSER grants since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, which caused schools to scramble in search of emergency supplies and new technology to allow remote learning during the shutdown. The funds were used to upgrade the buildings for health and safety, and after reopening to implement programs that helped students transition back to school.

Barry said the final ESSER grant of $10.7 million runs out in September. She reviewed maintenance projects underway or completed with ESSER funding, including new phone and intercom systems at Highland, Westfield High School and Southampton Road; HVAC control work and air conditioning repairs at Westfield Intermediate School and Westfield Middle School; a boiler room rebuild at WIS; new technology; a new roof for the maintenance barn; and the tennis courts at WHS, which are currently being rebuilt.

Some programs and personnel funded by ESSER are among the projected cuts if additional Chapter 70 funds and special education reimbursement is not received.

The Westfield Virtual School is one that is projected to close. When the Virtual School opened in the fall of 2021, it was as a response to the development of online learning during the pandemic and the recognition that some students excelled in that environment. Since that time, the virtual school has been paid for by ESSER funds. No other funding source for the school has been found.

“I wish we had more funding so that we were able to keep it open,” said Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski after the presentation. He said with ESSER funds ending in September, and an unexpectedly low Chapter 70 allocation from the state, the district is unable to continue to fund it. “The budget can’t absorb the cost,” he said.

Conversely, the free full-day prekindergarten programs now in four of the elementary schools, soon to be five with the new school opening in January, began under ESSER funding, but have since been switched over to a Commonwealth Preschool Partnership Initiative, which awarded Westfield a three-year grant of $750,000 in collaboration with the Greater Westfield Boys & Girls Club and YMCA.  Westfield has applied for a continuation grant under the program.

Other projected cuts are spread out throughout the schools. Both personnel reductions and new positions being funded are listed on the proposed FY25 budget presentation, which is posted alongside the FY25 line-item budget under the Business department page at www.schoolsofwestfield.org/page/business-office

Barry said the budget increases have been offset in part by School Choice funds. She said this year the district will be using $2 million in School Choice funds to offset the budget, “the most ever.”

With school choice, the district is paid $5,000 per student coming in, a number which has not increased in a decade, Czaporowski said. 

Other offsets to the budget are circuit breaker funds of $2.04 million, which help to pay for out-of-district special education tuition, as does $640,000 of the 240 Special Education grant.  In addition, the district pre-paid almost $700,000 towards out-of-district tuition in last year’s budget, a practice they do every year.

Other grants, which help to pay salaries, add up to $2.5 million.

Several parent advocates spoke up during public participation about the proposed reductions.

Sandra Robinson, who has a son in third grade and one entering preschool, said the layoffs and budget cuts are of significant concern for her, as the interventions her older son receives for his attention deficit disorder help to fill in the gaps. “These programs have been game changers for him… It is essential that we come together as a community to support our schools,” she said.

Patricia Bloniarz questioned the proposed elimination of a special education assistant teacher in her child’s elementary school.  “It is imperative that we prioritize the well-being and success of our students with special needs and provide them with the resources and support they need to thrive,” she said. 

“We are hoping to work together to come up with solutions,” Bloniarz added after the meeting. “This is a great town. We’re going to make it work.”

Joel Mayo expressed particular concern about the reduction of an elementary music teacher due to the merging of the two elementary schools.

“Chorus and band programs are not just extracurricular activities; they are vital components of a well-rounded education. These programs foster creativity, discipline, teamwork and confidence in our children. They provide opportunities for personal growth and expression that cannot be replicated in other subjects,” he said, later adding that he is “hoping the powers-that-be have a strong interest in the future of Westfield, and that starts with the children.”

Following the public portion, Mayor Mike McCabe, who chairs the School Committee, said he had not yet seen the budget. “I don’t know how you’ve seen the numbers you are quoting,” he said.

School Committee member Timothy O’Connor said some of the information was already public. “There are some budget cuts on the table. The superintendent did not want this forum to be the first time that’s heard by people,” he said. “In the past he’s made it clear that he wants to be transparent, and doesn’t want any surprises. We have a lot of work to do, this is just the start.”

Czaporowski said, “There is a finite amount of funding coming with the state, and that’s what we’re looking for. I am hopeful.”

McCabe said that he has a meeting planned with Sen. Jason Lewis (D-Winchester), the chair of the Joint Committee on Education and other members of his delegation to bring the Westfield story to them, a meeting made possible by Sen. John Velis (D-Westfield). Previously, McCabe said he wants to talk about additional reimbursement in the areas for special education and low-income in Westfield, which he believes are underfunded.

“There’s only a finite number for the entire city itself… which is a significant problem not just on the school side but on the city side. If the School Department needs $5 million, and there is only $5 million total new monies available, something is giving somewhere because we do have to fund all the contracts by law, so we’ve got to get it figured out.  We are desperately trying to close the gap,” McCabe said.

Bo Sullivan, who chairs the finance subcommittee, said that after the presentation the budget will be sent to his committee and will be reviewed at a Finance Committee of the Whole on April 29 at 6 p.m. in the Westfield High School auditorium, with another opportunity for public participation.  The School Committee will then vote on the budget at its regularly scheduled meeting on May 6.

After the meeting, O’Connor said, “The Westfield Public School system is complicated, and tonight, the budget discussion reflected that. There are different areas of need and a limited amount of resources to ensure that every student is being provided for at each grade level. We’re going to work hard to do the best we can to support the Westfield Public Schools in any way that we can.”

“If the school budget is indicative of the city budget, it’s probably going to be the most difficult budget season in my 10 years on the council,” said Councilor Ralph Figy, liaison to the School Committee.