One speech is all it took to rock the Westfield Board of Education to its very core. And one generous gesture from parents was all it took to prevent the board from having to make massive cuts to student programs.
The March 16th budget address by Governor Chris Christie – where he called for cutting state education aid by up to 5 percent of the school district's budget – or the equivalent of a 90 percent cut in state aid — sent local school officials into a seemingly endless series of meetings dedicated to finding ways to offset a larger-than-anticipated cut in state aid.
School officials had believed the word of then state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler, who, on March 2, had told districts to prepare for a cut of up to 15 percent in the previous year's state aid.
"On March 2nd, we dutifully drove up the hill to Summit and Bret Schundler lied to us," then BOE Vice President Julia Walker said at a March 23 BOE meeting. Walker is now president of the board.
The evening of March 16th, BOE members and district administrators filed into the board meeting room prepared for what had been the official presentation of the district's 2010-2011 budget proposal. With one week to go to present a preliminary plan to the county executive schools superintendent and two weeks to finalize a plan for the April school election, BOE officials were clearly pleased to have a plan written, including taking into account cuts based on Schundler's warning from two weeks before.
The situation that evening did not end up as the cut and dry budget presentation that Schools Superintendent Margaret Dolan had planned. Board members looked shocked and angry, speaking with visible emotion as they laid out what they considered a fiscal doomsday scenario for the Westfield public schools.
"We are so fiscally responsible and we do a good job," board member Jane Clancy said on March 16th. "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."
Comments made during the meeting showed that the possible loss of $4.25 million in state aid of – which ultimately was turned out to be $4.22 million when final state figures were calculated – had caught the board members off guard. BOE members warned of drastic cuts and couldn't contain their anger at Christie and Schundler.
"Having planned for a worst-case scenario of a 15 percent cut in state aid and now it's a 5 percent [total] budget cut, it will take more than four hours to react to it," said then board member Richard Solomon at the March 16th meeting. "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."
The days that followed were filled with emergency meetings. Parent leaders convened with Dolan, venting their anger at the governor. Teachers and students were clearly in shock, waiting for the next shoe to drop as the BOE hammered out plans that ranged from considering large layoffs to a major cuts in academic and athletic programs.
On March 23rd, the first budget proposal was unveiled. Thirty layoffs were proposed – down from the 60 originally forecasted in the wake of the cut. In addition, Dolan and the BOE proposed eliminating eighth-grade athletics, intramural sports at the high school and intermediate schools, the intermediate school fall dramas and a high school spring arts competition. At the same meeting, BOE officials said a student activity fee was on the table, but declined to elaborate on the proposal, saying it was one of many being considered as the March 31st budget deadline rapidly approached.
On March 30th, the BOE released a final plan for the $89.3 million budget. And it included a little help from the parents in the district, an overwhelming number of whom had told the board that they'd gladly pay a student activity fee to help keep as many extracurricular offerings as possible.
"Parents support a student activity fee," Dolan said on March 30th. "They recognize times are tough and everyone needs to pitch in."
STUDENT ACTIVITY FEE IMPLEMENTED
In the months that followed, the BOE, along with parent and athletic leaders hammered out a proposal to create a two-tiered student-activity fee structure, where students participating in an athletic, theatrical program or school clubs pay a one-time fee of $125 a year. Students in all other extracurricular activities will pay $60. Plans included a process for students who could not pay to approach school administrators to request a waiver of the fee. Members of the marching band and color guard were exempt from the fees.
As part of the plan, the BOE considered a fee that was required to be paid before tryouts or rehearsals and then refunded if a coach or director cut a student.
As the 2010-11 school year begins – school district officials say the fee hasn't been an issue. They say participation is up – especially among freshmen – and that the program to offset payments for needy students is working.
"No one is vehemently opposed to it," athletics supervisor Sandy Mamary said.
Mamary said that sign-ups for fall sports teams – the most definitive indicator currently available for measuring the impact of the fee – have remained consistent with past years. She said students are continuing to sign up for teams with the higher than normal ninth grade class continuing to show participation in sports. She said there have been cuts made, but based on performance not on the activity fee.
"All of the numbers are well above capacity," Mamary said, noting that the cross-country team has had the most sign-ups, with more than 100 students on each squad. "We have had to cut in ninth-grade sports, but not like what we have had to do before. We have so many kids."
The September 25th football match-up at Kehler Stadium brought hundreds of parents and students out to watch the Blue Devils win 35-14. The crowds gathered under the bright blue skies and blazing sun that provided weather more familiar to July than to late September. Those gathered at the game were mixed about the fee: some supported it while others say it is another tax.
"I'm for it," said Chris Freer, a father of four ranging from elementary school to the high school. "A lot of schools were cutting sports. It was not a big fee to pay for your kids to participate. Compared to the other fees we pay it is modest."
Freer cited other fees he and other parents pay for private athletic programs and travel teams, estimating that he also pays roughly $1,000 a year in travel soccer team expenses a year, as well as the $125 student activity fee.
Francie Matthews, a WHS parent, also supports the fee, especially in support of programs that could possibly be cut. Matthews said she was proud to support others in need.
"I like the fact that they encourage people to donate for those who cannot afford it," she said.
But not everyone is on board.
"It's a way to raise our taxes," said WHS parent Carol Brown. "If you have to pay it, your kids have to do something."
Brown said parents in Westfield are too often asked to cover extra costs and questioned if the district tracks who is — and isn't — paying their share.
Mamary and BOE Business Administrator Bob Berman, who is overseeing fee collection, created an accounting system that allows coaches and club advisors help oversee who is paying. Berman said administration of the fee continues to go smoothly. He said he expects parents to get used to paying the fee as time progresses and many of the kinks to be ironed out as the school year progresses.
Mamary said the waiver system – which can be achieved after a student talks to a coach, Mamary or Dolan – does not show up in the computer system. She said those students are indicated as having paid the fee and their identity will only be known to a select few.
One high school parent attending the game, who declined to provide her name for fear of identifying her child, said her child told her that students want to help peers in need.
Berman said it is too early to discuss the impact of the fee on clubs, noting that club sign-ups continue through September. He said preliminary numbers have been positive and that many of the athletes participate in clubs, which will not require an extra fee. He said he expects students to request fee waivers for clubs, given the waivers requested for athletics.
Students involved in extracurricular activities have said the fee did not impact their decision to participate. They said the money continues to keep the extracurricular and athletic options open.
"I guess that you are getting a lot for your money," Angela Dorry said. "If it is the whole year it works."
"The fee is not ridiculous," Monika Nemeth said. "It helps pay for things."
Going forward, the BOE might not always find such easy answers. New challenges have been thrown at them, and all school boards statewide, in the form of the state's new 2 percent cap on property-tax increases. Next year's budget cycle, which includes the likelihood of a cut to the remaining $448,345 in state aid, is at the mercy of what the state legislature will do with Christie's proposed toolkit of management proposals for local officials.
"It is clearly a moving target," BOE President Walker said in an interview this summer. "It has moved from a constitutional amendment to legislative action. From 2.5 to 2.9 to 2.0 and the list of exemptions has changed as much as the percentage itself. At this juncture it is hard to comment on what the bills to be voted on are."
Also this summer, Dolan said the toolkit will likely provide very little to the school district, saying that many of the practices in the areas of shared services are already practiced in Westfield. She said that the arbitration-reform proposals could help Westfield, but many of the proposals would only find a small amount for the system. In terms of Christie's call to reduce her salary, she said the proposal would only provide $20,000 for the district.
Dolan and Walker have stressed for months that the board is continuing to monitor action in Trenton, where the toolkit proposals have been sitting in legislative committees with no scheduled date for hearings or votes, and see how it impacts the district. The toolkit has been officially endorsed by the Republican controlled Town Council and Town Administrator Jim Gildea.
But they have been trying to prep Westfielders for the possibility of another tumultuous budget year.
While uncertainty continues in the halls of BOE headquarters on Elm Street, many parents have remained upbeat about the activity fee, stressing the positives of the fee's impact on Westfield.
"I am definitely for the fee, it keeps your kids out of trouble," Freer said.
Editor's Note: This story is part of a nationwide Patch series probing the economy's effect on local schools. For more on the impact on the Westfield public schools, click here.