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Letter: Board of Ed President 'We Need to Bond the Roofs'

Richard Mattessich says "we can't afford... to simply harp on the past."

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. 

Thanks.

Rich Mattessich

President, Westfield Board of Education    

John December 09, 2012 at 05:15 AM
WP - So, you are saying that you want non-certified people to evaluate their job performance. So, can I evaluate your job? I have no clue what you do, but in your thinking, I should be asked for input in your evaluation. I have never seen you at your job, but my 10 year old son has, and told me about you, so I should be able to be a component in your job evaluation. Come on, seriously? The issue here is about the roofs which is directly linked to the board of ed, previous board of eds, superintendent, and other top administrators. There is no reason to call out teachers, coaches, counselors, etc because you have had a bad experience. There are so many great professional educators in Westfield. And there are a few bad ones as well. But that's true in every job. Keep your focus on the point of the discussion and the vote on Tuesday.
Gary McCready December 09, 2012 at 06:08 AM
I would ask the following be considered: - Using a bond is a valid way to fund projects in a school district, and was intended to continue to be an option for districts when the state legislature limited yearly operating budget increases to 2%. Valid uses include projects whose lifetime approximates the length of the bond – which include roofs. Rich makes a valid point when he says the alternative is paying taxes now for projects that could be decades in the future; in my opinion, it is better to pay taxes for something while you are using it, not before. - Items not fully within the control of the Board include energy prices to legislative mandates to the number of students in school, and salaries. Teacher salaries have to parallel other districts, both to attract good candidates and to avoid imposition of mediation which can force salaries to the same point anyway. Upcoming contracts should include a merit program (just becoming a factor in teacher contracts) where the best teachers will probably be paid more, eventually. As anyone who has co-workers knows, even when the company has total control over salaries, it never is always fair. You should consider if the "bond" portion of your tax is being kept at a reasonable level (a minimal total increase over time with this bond as others expire) for the appropriate (your opinion) and needed items the bond will fund. Finally, Westfield's spending is among the lowest in the county and similar districts statewide
Voting NO Again December 09, 2012 at 12:37 PM
I will also be voting NO. Set aside the issue of past fiscal mismanagment. At this point that is a given. Some of the current Board members participated in it, some did not (they are too new). The issue is what to do now and, as far as I can tell, the Board has proposed nothing other than the usual "raise taxes as much as possible" approach. Nothing ever changes. The mindset never changes, the policy never changes, the reasoning never changes. About the most prredictable thing in Westfield is the BOE will raise taxes by the absolute maximum allowed under the mantra of "do it for the kids." Here's a thought: maybe the kids would be better off it their families weren't so stressed by the ever increasing tax burden. Maybe there would be some extra money to visit a museum, go to a ballgame or even take a family vacation. The current proposal is irresponsible. If the Board can't find a way to fund some portion (perhaps half) of the roofs through operating expense reductions elsewhere, I will VOTE NO. They created this mess. They can contribute at least something to the solution.
Katie Ellingson December 09, 2012 at 01:28 PM
Extortion? Oh please- I do agree that this Board must cut teachers pay and not give raises- that is a given and I am confident that the newer board members understand that- but voting no to fix roofs will not accomplish that- It, as the President and other Board Members have said, will only cut programs- that doesn't appear to me as a threat but a reality- I also find it surprising after attending a recent Board Meeting that none of the people shouting loudly on Patch ever show up and demand answers in person- I may have only gone to Public Schools but we used to call those people cowards.
JWB December 09, 2012 at 03:28 PM
@Gary. You're rewriting history by implying that the boe only bonded for long term projects in the past. This was the philosophy employed for a number of years, put minimal amounts into the operating budget for repairs and maintenance and more into salaries and others. This was not routine as you and others have said. Check out our neighbors to the east and west. Cranford and Scotch Plains did not do this. Witness the audit report where we are told we do not have adequate reserves. This is not the case with those other districts.
Walkin Westfield December 09, 2012 at 08:27 PM
the BOE has a $95 million operating budget for the 2012/2013 school year. Last years budget increased 2.2% over the previous year with no vote from the residents. They will probably increase the budget another 2% in June 2013. $1.95 million can go a long way to replacing and maintaining roofs. VOTE NO on the proposed bond. Let’s help the BOE spend our money wisely.
Facts Matter December 09, 2012 at 10:38 PM
Walkin - you are so full of crap- your facts are dead wrong and your bias clouds reality Maybe if you came to one of the 10 meetings on this issue you'd realize how wrong you are -the people will speak tuesday and you can go back to your hole
Facts Matter December 09, 2012 at 10:39 PM
Sound more like walkin pneumonia to me
Westfield Parent December 10, 2012 at 12:38 AM
The nastiness of some of the bond supporters really does not reflect well on the BOE. If the BOE count on votes from these obnoxious people, well, good luck with the voting results. Previous bond was defeated by more than a 2:1 margin with unusually big turnout. Every single voting unit in the entire town of Westfield voted "no". Using the presidential electorate analogy, in the previous voting, there was not a single "Yes" electorate vote. Nil. Nothing. Nata. Where does the BOE think the "Yes" votes will come from this time around?
Time For Change December 10, 2012 at 01:00 AM
Likely from the voters who have followed the information and facts that have been provided to the public and not from the folks like yourself who vote no, for the sake of voting no.
Voting NO Again December 10, 2012 at 01:52 AM
I usually support the Board but refuse to so this time. Teh combination of mismanagment, lack of creativity and inability to show some courage regarding funding is just too much. At some point, enough is enough and his is the point for me. And, by the way, I have followed the issue closely. Voting NO.
Gary McCready December 10, 2012 at 02:19 AM
@JWB, I'm not sure which history you refer to, as a bond project would simply not be approved by the county/state if it was not funding a long-term improvement. But, if there was such a bond, feel free to provide a link to a story in the Leader (many decades archived online) to prove me wrong. Yes, other districts have funded maintenance out of operating costs, but I'm sure they have bonded items as well. And since their per-student cost is higher than Westfield's, they probably can set aside more funds but then they are taxing you in advance of the need, and without the explicit voter approval of a bond - is that preferable? Or would you rather have the BoE hide the money away without your knowledge, which is why the legislature about 8-10 years ago reduced the maximum reserve at the time to 2 percent. And yes, all auditors say 2 percent general reserve is too low, not that BoE’s can do much about it.
Time For Change December 10, 2012 at 02:29 AM
http://education.state.nj.us/rc/rc11/guide.htm Feel free to check out this state of nj department of education report card for all schools in the state. Look at Westfield average cost per pupil. If you have been following along as you have suggested, you will see that the average cost per pupil in Westfield is substantially below the state average and below the towns that Westfield is most often compared to. There is a reason for that. Could they spend less, for sure but those numbers don't lie so why does everyone act like they don't exist! The grass is always greener.
A.John Blake December 10, 2012 at 11:31 AM
Time For Change, If spending money was the criterion by which one could guarantee good schools, then Newark and Camden would be on the " A" list. There is no doubt that it is necessary to spend money to get good results but your response above is faulty. Spending money wisely and keeping in mind that you must pay attention to the economy and the problems of the taxpayers is most important. A.John Blake
CK December 10, 2012 at 11:55 AM
I am just wondering if you have been given the information regarding the state regulations regarding the limit of funds the board is allowed to keep on hand for large projects such as this. It is extremely limiting and might change your view a bit on mismanagement thoughts.
CK December 10, 2012 at 12:03 PM
to Vote No. I am guessing you do not have children in the school districut. Are you are homeowner in town? Whatever you want to say about what is okay for students historically, please understand that elementary school class sizes are absolutely linked to student performance. And a lack of enrichments such as arts and athletics would find our schools ranked much, much lower. I would not have moved here if either were the case, and nor would many other people. Going on about how this was all fine in the 60s is one thing. But if our school system declines, so will our property values, because I would not pay what I did for a house in a poor school system, and neither will anyone else.
CK December 10, 2012 at 12:09 PM
We have a counselor with a bucket on his desk to catch the drips. I really wish people who did now show up to hear the reports on the true state of the roofs would stop commenting on them as if they know what they are talking about. Please, vote how you feel about this, but stop trying to pass on incorrect information.
CK December 10, 2012 at 12:11 PM
Ian.... not at the meetings, I suppose. The true numbers to fix the roofs (without the bond) is a cut of 4 million dollars PER YEAR every year for 3 years. And that is what is going to have to happen. Please stop making numbers up as if you know what your are talking about - for whatever you think the board has done, you are doing the entire issue a disservice by spreading/proposing false alternatives.
Time For Change December 10, 2012 at 12:30 PM
Thanks Mr. Blake for being the aribiter of whether my comments are faulty or not. Perhaps in your haste to tell everyone once again that you are voting NO, you missed the point. The prior comments have been about fiscal mis-management, the Board spending too much money etc. I merely was pointing out that by one independent measure, the district spending is far less than the state average, less than many districts that Westfield is most often compared to for performance. As I said, sure, would I like us to spend less-absolutely. If we want to be fair however, there is something being done right if the spend per pupil in Westfield is lower than in other districts. You could make the argument that Westfield does not spend enough! Perhaps the other districts have more debt per pupil which drives up the spend per kid. Nobody talks about this metric and it should be part of the mix, in my opinion.
Gary McCready December 10, 2012 at 02:17 PM
@A.John Blake, you do bring up some key considerations in your post to "Time for Change", such as - "spending money wisely": believe it for not, Westfield's BoE had been prudent with taxpayer dollars, first having a multi-million general fund that could be used for things such as roofs, but was given back to the taxpayers about 10 years ago, and including a strategy of using bonds for major improvements when the state gave a 40% discount for them, especially when interest rates were low. - "must pay attention to the economy and the problems of the taxpayers": Let's say the question was "Will you vote to set aside 2 million dollars per year for 10 years to fund projects to be determined at a future point in time"? How many people would vote for that in this economy to tax themselves without knowing what it would be spent for? Yet, that is being advocated by many of the comments here Overall, you cannot judge school board finances by usual methods. And two more data points to consider: - Westfield HS had the highest SAT's in Union county last year; income and genetics aside, that would still not happen if over the years programs were cut to fund improvements, as many suggest - Westfield, per the Coldwell Banker home listings report at http://hlr.coldwellbanker.com/US2012/NewJersey.html has the 6th highest reported home average price in NJ. Obviously, that comes from a variety of factors, but a strong school system is always considered by families paying that much.
A.John Blake December 11, 2012 at 01:55 AM
Mr.McCready, I am really tired of hearing that the schools support the real estate industry of Westfield. Yes it is a selling point but so are lower taxes. In the area of education, much good can be said of the Westfield school system. In the area of truthfulness and openness, much is lacking in the school system. The choice of a special voting day for the first referendum when that notoriously gets a low turnout. The bundling of the two questions. The fact that the turf was proffered as necessary.The underhanded campaigning through public assets for passage. The blatant conflict of interests of the people contacting the parents. The contacting only the parents to sway the vote. The present referendum beginning with a cry that all roofs were all in an emergent state. The realization that the Board really wants to remove these costs from the spending cap. All these point to a very troubling attitude by the Board and its constant loyalty to the parents as opposed to the taxpayer. The Board must understand it is the servent of the taxpayer and it owes the taxpayer honesty and openness. a.JohnBlake
Gary McCready December 11, 2012 at 02:47 AM
A.John Blake, ok, a few responses, -lower taxes will not yet you that far in this state without a good school system - the voting days are mandated by law - you've read enough of my posts to know that by now. - I'm sure the BoE bundled the questions so they would have a better chance of passing, and if they did not believe the field was necessary, there is no way it should have been on the ballot - I'm not sure what "public assets" you refer to, but you could point to any method of informing the public done by the school board (websites, meetings) as using a public assett - the main reason the parents get contacted is because the phone numbers of the parents are available, and all contacts are done by volunteers of their own free will - The cap is designed for the yearly budget, and by law explictly excludes bonds. We have votes for those. - The board used to have more loyalty to the taxpayer with the ability to vary the voted-on budget every year to meet needs, but now with the 2% cap and no allowance for inflation or almost any emergency, BoE's must maximize what the law allows them to budget for. If they spend less than budgeted, monies can be returned to taxpayers or now set aside for specific items. - And no, it is not the servant of the taxpayer, by way of too many laws and mandates, it must first serve the needs of the students, hopefully within what the taxpayers allow. As we saw, that did not include turf fields!
Voting NO Again December 11, 2012 at 03:28 AM
Mr. McCready Up front, let me say that I appreciate the long hours BOE members put into their work. For the most part, it is thankless. That said, residents aren't obliged to agree with everything the BOE does. And at this point, in my opinion, they have gone too far as evidenced by the backlash on this issue. To several of your specific points: First, I attended several of the meetings at which this issue was discussed. The original voting date was set by a desire to immediately hire an architect, not by any state law. The Board explicitly discussed having the original referendum on the same day as the Presidential election. Surprise, surprise, they knew better than to do that. Second, these volunteers making calls just happened to get the parent's phone numbers from exactly where? Could it be the school system? Third, your statement that the BOE must "maximize what the law allows them to budget for, " speaks for itself. Always grab the most possible. Fourth, you say that monies can be returned. Please. If I recall correctly, the current budget includes the maximum possible increase (2%) PLUS all the monies remaining from the year before. Nothing was returned. Thus, my chief complaint. Nothing ever changes. Why couldn't the BOE split the difference: Half of the money through a bond and half through budget cuts elsewhere. The answer shouldn't always be: Tax as much as possible. Voting NO.
Gary McCready December 11, 2012 at 03:38 PM
Mr. Again, yes, apparently (even though in the NJDOE language it is not really clear) bond votes can (and did) happen on election day. Of course, if you are trying to get the bond passed (which is the BoE's goal) they might not want the vote held on that date. Looks like it was 50/50 on the bonds voted on that date. In most cases, the phone numbers should come from the student directories which the PTO's publish, which are typically opt-in at some point. Minor point, but you could better argue against the use of the district-based robocalls to remind people to vote. Yes, I did say that monies "can" be returned. It is up to the BoE to balance keeping the taxpayers happy (for a bond vote?) vs using it to fund programs or ongoing purchases. Since many costs (energy, special ed) are variable, the money to be returned may be different yearly, which makes if difficult to always depend on a specific amount towards something like roofs, hence a big set-aide from a bond for that. I would rather see 10,000 checks (maybe for 50 or 100 each) sent to each taxpayer if there is money to be returned so people can "see" it. Otherwise, it just gets churned back into the system with either more things getting purchased in the following year, or taxes not going up as much. Due to the budget constraints, the BoE is basically limiting what it can raise next year if it does not go to the max every year. If it could roll-over (maybe?) the unused increase if needed, that might make sense.
A.John Blake December 11, 2012 at 04:23 PM
Mr.McCready, It is a pleasure to see in your response to "Mr.Again" that you are resorting to the type of honesty and candor the BOE should display all the time.I'm glad to see someone finally admit that the Board refused the election day date because they were trying to get the bond passed.The original story was less than believable. I don't look at the Board as a body that should have an agenda. I would object if our Republican Town Council took a side on an electoral issue even if they avidly believed it was the "right" thing to do. Public bodies represent all the people, even those who don't agree with them. The Board should not maneuver,it should not campaign, and it should not make use of Public assets like phone lists and emergency systems to further what it thinks is its "cause".The Board fulfills its function when it makes a decision that it thinks a bond should be issued and then sits back and allows the electorate to discuss and decide.The Board cannot "win" or "lose". Thanks for the candor. A.John Blake
JERSEY GIRL December 11, 2012 at 05:38 PM
TIred of hearing the threat of overcrowded classrooms. Maybe if Teachers/ Admin staff were not permitted to have their children attend schools in town, plus the families that move out of Westfield that still have their children enrolled, sitting in said classes, perhaps there would be a difference. Dont understand the negative comment regarding Mandarin, we all know Latin is a "dead language". Many of these parents are in a position to pay for private schools, private tutors, etc.. I honestly feel the high test scores are a product of that, not student teacher ratio. Sure some teachers are better than others, we all have experienced the lack luster ones I'm sure, dont think three or four extra students in a classroom will make that much difference. For the programs such as AP and Proj 79, possibly allow enrollement starting sophmore year to avoid an overcrowding situation. I think we live in a generation of parents who refuse to say no to their children,who expect and want everything done "now". I dont think all these costs should fall on the taxpayers, whether they have children in the school or not is irrelevant.
Checking the Facts December 11, 2012 at 06:57 PM
I was also at a number of meetings and heard the full Board vote to give Tax Relief back to taxpayers- I don't recall the exact amount but I belief they set aside close to $2 Million dollars over the next two years to do that- not much fanfare- just did it- but of course nobody remembers that part- And if you have a problem with PTO's calling parents then you are really nuts.
Gary McCready December 11, 2012 at 09:01 PM
A few comments - Teachers and staff have not been allowed to enroll new students in town schools (unless they are residents) for several contracts now. The only ones that remain are those that are grandfathered in due to prior enrollment before the change. In any case, those students are assigned to schools where the enrollment is lowest for the grade they are in so those students are usually not a factor in overcrowding. - There are very few freshman taking AP classes, so that is probably not an issue, and I would hope the focus is on getting students in Project 79 sooner as freshman and eventually into regular classes (I don't really know how that operations, though). - I think we live in a generation where no one likes to hear "no"...
Gary McCready December 11, 2012 at 09:05 PM
I just believe the BoE should do whatever it takes to pass a bond it supports, and be very clear as to the techniques that are used. It is a fine line to draw between providing information and campaigning. And usually once they decide on an action, they should move forward as quickly as possible, for if no other reason then need to do a second vote if the first one does not pass!-)
South Westfielder December 11, 2012 at 10:29 PM
@ Gary, we live in a generation where no one wants to hear "no", and behaves as if they are the only ones who are entitled, absolve themselves of responsibility and accountability, blame others, only look at the surface of a problem, and the list goes on.

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