On Tuesday, December 11, 2012, voters will be asked whether they want to fund a bond referendum in the amount of $13.6 million for roofs. Many in the community agree with the Board of Education that roofs are a necessity and understand that they need to pay for them. There is disagreement over how roofs should be paid for – bond referendum or reallocation of the existing operating budget. What we really can’t afford to do right now is to simply harp on the past. My view, and I have stated it many times publicly, is that we need to bond the roofs today, and we need to make sure we don’t find ourselves in the same position the next time roofs (or other large projects) need replacement. Let me explain those two positions.
First – we need to bond the roofs. That is my opinion. The alternative is to reallocate funds within the operating budget. I will describe that as making “cuts” to all areas of the operating budget because that is what will be required. Some have described the notion that the Board of Education is stating that it will make cuts if the bond fails as a “threat,” made in order to get people to vote for the bond. It is not a threat. What would people say if the bond fails and we never told them that, as a result, our budget discussions starting in January will have a very real focus on the implications of elementary class sizes with an upper end of 30, or a significantly reduced sports program, or significantly reduced fine arts program, or fewer counselors, etc. That is a reality. And as unpleasant as it might be to have to say it, we can’t turn a blind eye to it. It would be nice if there had been a large sum of funds previously designated to fund future roof replacement that we could use right now. We could have new roofs and maintain our excellent academic and extracurricular standards. But harping on the fact that such a pot of funds does not exist, or promoting the notion that therefore we must somehow “show the Board of Ed” by voting no, gets us nowhere. We can cut programs and increase class size if we need to. As a Board of Education, we don’t think that would be in the best interest of our students. We have to care about all 6,300 plus students that we have today, and we have to care about the role our educational system plays in maintaining Westfield as a desirable location for those seeking to raise their children in the future.
Second – we need to make sure that we don’t find ourselves in the same position the next time roofs (or other large projects) need replacement. The law now allows us to designate and save funds for long term projects. That has not always been the case. Much has been made of using funds for ongoing maintenance projects versus using funds for longer term capital projects. The bickering is pointless. We need to do both. As I have said publicly, we will discuss as a Board during our annual budget process (which has begun and which will run through March), how much we should be depositing from the overall annual budget into a longer term capital account for future replacements. That sounds a lot easier than it is – the money has to come from somewhere. For every dollar we deposit into a longer term capital projects account, we will reduce what we spend in our operating budget. No doubt people will disagree over how much to fund and what should be reduced as an offset. And, while no one will acknowledge this, some residents will be annoyed that their tax dollars will be deposited into a fund that may not be used for 20 years, since they might not be living in Westfield in 20 years when the money will be spent. But they will need to understand that they will indirectly benefit from a thoughtful savings process, which we can undertake a little each year, without undermining the excellence in education that so many good people in town have worked to build up over many years. And, of course, people will need to remember that if the State comes in and effectively “takes” the funds we are accumulating for future projects like roofs, that we saved the money in the first place for a responsible reason. I put “takes” in quotes because the State probably would not just take the money -- they would see it sitting there and reduce our State aid. So before we all keep harping on the past, let’s simply learn from it, and use our energy to move forward rather than to keep looking backward.
President, Westfield Board of Education