Westfield could lose up to $4.25 million in school aid under Gov. Chris Christie's proposed state budget.
Board of Education officials announced Tuesday night that Christie's proposal that school districts could lose up to five percent of their total budget in state aid is sending officials scrambling to assemble a package of cuts within two weeks. The announcement is a complete change from the information district officials were operating under with regards to state aid cuts.
"The rules all changed today," Schools Superintendent Margart Dolan said. "Based on the words of the governor today, Westfield's cut to our state aid will be 92-percent. Based on today's presentation, Westfield could face a cut of $4.25 million in state aid."
School officials had been working under word from state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler that districts would see a cut of either five, 10 or 15-percent of total state aid, with the worst case being a loss of $750,000. The formula change increased the total. Dolan said the district's planned presentation of a budget with a $750,000 state aid cut built in had to be tossed because of the larger cut. The exact amount of state aid cuts has not been revealed by Schundler.
Dolan said education officials will need to develop a budget, incorporating the state aid cut, within two weeks. A draft budget is due to the county schools superintendent for review next Tuesday, with a final budget scheduled to be adopted in two weeks in order to prepare for the April 20 school board election. She said the key is to write a budget, incoporating a potentially massive state aid cut without jeopardizing education quality in town.
Dolan spent Tuesday in emergency meetings with school budget officials discussing the cuts and the board's finance committee held a meeting Tuesday night to discuss them. Dolan has called meetings for Wednesday with the district's administrative staff and the union presidents to discuss possible cuts. The board has announced a finance committee meeting for Thursday night. The tight time frame to present a final budget for voter approval has set up a scenario for marathon cutting meetings.
"We will need the work of everyone to solve this problem," Dolan said, describing the cuts as draconian.
The board does have the option of waiving the four percent property tax cap imposed by the state in order to make up all lost state aid via a tax hike. This has been ruled off the table, given the electoral difficulty of receiving voter approval for a massive tax hike. From the comments of board members on Tuesday night, some sort of hybrid solution of hikes and cuts could occur, but no definite solution had been discovered.
"Having planned for a worst case scenario of a 15-percent cut in state aid and now it's a five percent budget cut, it will take more than four hours to react to it," board member Richard Solomon said. "We may be looking at significant program cuts in areas we had considered sacred. Last year we used the word draconian but we didn't know what draconian meant until today."
Multiple board members expressed frustration and anger towards Christie for the massive education cuts. They noted they were in the audience when Schundler announced the possible cuts to prepare for what were less than what Christie announced.
Members cited the work done by the BOE in recent years to contain costs. These measures have included savings in energy costs and new teacher contracts. The teacher contracts, passed last week, will deliver teachers a pay raise, but maintain a flat first year salary, along with requiring teachers to increase contributions to their own health care.
"We are so fiscally responsible and we do a good job," board member Jane Clancy said. "I am frustrated and dumbfounded. We keep getting punished and it is beyond worse. Words cannot even describe how frustrating this is. Our education should not have to suffer."
The protection of the quality of education and educational services is the stated goal of BOE members. The members said they want to keep the level of education at the same level as expected by Westfield residents and not make cuts in curriculum offerings.
BOE members brought up the cuts made last year by the board, noting they would rather avoid more layoffs. Last year, the board had to eliminate 24 posts districtwide, along with 41 stipends for teachers to take on extra work as club advisors. Several BOE members noted that the extra work of club advisors has been a plus in the district and its statewide reputation.
The decision was made in response to past changes to the school finance amounts coming out of Trenton. These were in addition to the insurance costs expected to be implemented as a result of the new contracts with unions representing teachers and secretaries.
The need to protect the schools' reputation was a common comment from many board members.
"We were cut loose today," board vice president Julia Walker said. "We are self-funded. It is up to us to figure out how to make the hard choices to protect what we have spent decades building."