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Westfield School Aid Increase Doubles; Usage Rules Unclear

Christie provides district with additional $845,448 in new state budget.

Westfield’s state education aid increase has doubled under the state budget plan Gov. Chris Christie signed into law at the end of June

Under figures released by Westfield state’s legislative delegation Tuesday, the Board of Education is slated to receive a total of $2,139,241 in state aid in the 2011-2012 state budget. The number represents a total of $1,690,896 over last year’s state aid of $448,345. The new aid number is an $845,448 – or double increase – over the increase that was first announced by the state Department of Education in February for state aid to Westfield.

When he signed the state budget into law, Christie added additional funds for suburban school districts. Christie and the state Department of Education, however, have not announced how district’s can use the additional aid.

“Obviously any relief we can get from the state is welcome,” Board of Education President Julia Walker said. “I guess it is cautious optimism in knowing if we can put the additional state aid into the budget this year, so we can address concerns about class size and putting programs into place.”

The education department has not yet informed districts if the additional aid can be used in the school district budgets, which took effect on July 1. The previous $845,448 increase could be used in the 2011-2012 school budget. If the education department does not allow current usage, the additional $845,448 cannot be used until the 2012-2013 school budget. The state education department has not returned a message left for comment.

BOE officials have been looking for funds to address enrollment issues on the elementary school level, including class sizes bumping into the 25 student maximum at several elementary schools, including those on the south side of town. At the June 28 BOE meeting, parents from the in-coming second grade class at Tamaques School noted that the students are likely to face 25 student classes, similar to what the students had in first grade. The BOE is scheduled to hear an update on class size issues from Schools Superintendent Margaret Dolan at a meeting on July 26.

BOE officials have also been looking for funding to address issues surrounding intermediate school enrollment and guidance. This includes the hiring of an additional guidance counselor for Roosevelt Intermediate School, where there are two counselors, compared to three at Edison Intermediate School. Among other issues the district has looked at is funding dedicated librarians at each elementary school, an item cut following Christie’s dramatic state aid cut in 2010. Elementary school librarians are now shared between schools.

The 2011 state aid figures represent the town’s first increase in state education aid in the past several years. The town saw a gradual decrease in state education aid since the middle part of the last decade, with the largest drop occurring in 2010 when Christie slashed the district’s state aid by $4.22 million – or 90.4-percent. Christie’s aid cut came two weeks before BOE officials were to finalize the district’s budget, forcing school officials to scramble to develop staff and program cuts.

In budget meetings throughout this spring, BOE officials, who had been nervous expecting additional cuts to state aid, discussed the various staff and program cuts the district had made due to state aid cuts by Christie and former Gov. Jon Corzine. Among the cuts were the librarians, one guidance position at each intermediate school, teacher positions, supervisor posts and extracurricular activities. In addition, the district implemented a student activity fee at the beginning of this year, following parental opposition to planned cuts in intermediate school athletics and arts programs.

During this spring’s budget hearings, Walker and other board members touted the district’s spending plan – which included a two-percent tax increase – as not having any cuts to staffing and programs for the first time in several years.

Westfield’s all Republican legislative delegation – Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., Assemblyman Jon Bramnick and Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz – released a statement praising their fellow Republican for placing the additional funds in the budget. The Republican legislative trio have been loyal supporters of Christie since the governor took office in 2010. 

“School children and property taxpayers are the primary beneficiaries of the governor’s decision to dedicate additional state revenue to school aid for suburban communities,” said Kean, the father of two Westfield public school students who had declined an invitation to meet with the Westfield BOE following the 2010 state aid cuts by Christie. “By making tough choices and using an unexpected bump in state revenues wisely, we were able not only to increase aid over the last year, but to double the rate of increase that was originally proposed in March.”  

Nancy Thompson July 12, 2011 at 07:44 PM
Now Tom Kean speaks? Where was he the last few years. So typical of a politician taking credit after the fact....pathetic...
Gary McCready July 13, 2011 at 01:58 PM
The discussion on how to spend the money, hopefully happening on July 26 along with enrollment discussions, should be interesting. Although not practice during the summer, the Board leadership should consider videotaping and rebroadcasting this meeting to allow access by all, and mention as such before the meeting. This will allow both better communication and more transparency. It will be also interesting to see how much of the increase goes to ongoing operations (such as reducing class sizes) versus one-time costs (non-lease technology or maintenance, for example). Can future funding be trusted?

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