Westfield Board of Education President Richard Mattessich took a moment near the end of Tuesday evening's public Board meeting to address an editorial written by the staff of The Westfield Leader regarding the $13.6 million bond referendum that was voted on Tuesday, Dec. 11. The piece was published in the Dec. 6 edition of the weekly paper.
Mattessich read his statement just an hour before votes were tallied. The bond referendum passed: 2,700 to 1,503.
He began by saying he realized that there are residents in the community who will never vote "yes" for any referendum that would result in an increase in taxes and while that is fine, he took issue with was someone trying to sway public opinion by misusing his position.
Mattessich said he found the piece, printed on page 4, "quite disturbing at a professional level" and of such an importance that he felt the need to express his opinion regardless of the fate of the bond.
Mattessich addressed the editorial's first paragraph, in which the author indicated that the BOE had "scared" 40 percent of the eligible voting community through "selective distribution" of letters to parents of school children while not providing that same information to the entire community.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," said Mattessich, who added that "the author knows all too well" that the email that was sent to parents set forth factual information that was published many times in various forms and readily available to the entire town of Westfield.
He further stated it is not at all uncommon for the school system to communicate essential information through email to parents of students in the district. He said the email, which stated that operating budget cuts should the bond fail would result in a decrease in staff, cuts to sports and fine arts programs and more, was "simply a statement of the truth, not a statement intended to scare anyone." He said it is the same statement the Board made in public Board meetings, on television and through its widely-distributed, Synopsis. He added that the information had also been reported on in the Leader.
Mattessich read and then addressed each of the eight questions posed in the editorial.
1. Is the school system skirting the law with this bond by their own words, “If the bond does not pass... spending caps determined by the state?”
"While the author's point is not really clear, I think the author is suggesting that the Board is doing some unlawful. Yet the Board is doing exactly what the law allows us to do," Mattessich said. "The law permits bonding of major capital improvements and our bond counsel confirmed our roof improvements qualify for the bond referendum.
"Does anyone really think we didn't check that? In fact, all aspects of the bond referendum process have been overseen by the Board's independent bond counsel-one of the premiere bond counsels in the state."
2. Is the school system using taxpayer money to advance their selective agenda? Is there a conflict of interest from the principals?
"The fact is that email is a low-cost, efficient way to communicate and the email contained the same information already communicated to the general public several times in several different ways," Mattessich said.
3. What are our children being taught about “right and wrong?”
"In my opinion, we could use this editorial to teach our children how not to abuse power," Mattessich said. "The author has an important responsibility to disseminate complete information to all citizens in Westfield."
While the author spoke to the administration before this piece was published, Mattessich noted, he chose to publish it anyway, not withstanding the complete and accurate facts.
"Given the time of his publication, the Board had no meaningful way to reach the citizens of Westfield before the bond vote, allowing voters to go to the polls lacking the full and accurate facts," Mattessich said. "Indeed our children can learn a lot about what is wrong in the world by this behavior."
4. Why doesn’t the public speak out? Are they afraid, do they agree, do they not care or are they resigned to “resistance is futile”?
The whole point of a referendum is that it allows the public to speak out, Mattessich noted.
"The public certainly spoke out in September," Mattessich said, referring to the 2:1 defeat of a $16.9 million bond referendum that bundled the roof repairs with a lighted turf field. "Why suggest that the public are no more than a bunch of scared sheep? I don't believe that. They may be fooled when presented less than all the facts, but only time will tell."
5. Why doesn’t government enforce the laws to protect the taxpayers? We understand that it is not legal to bond repairs. Are we missing something?
"Yes, you are completely missing something, both the law and the complete and accurate facts," he said. "The Westfield Board of Education is using a permissible state mechanism to bond roof replacements. The Leader knows this and has reported on this many times."
Mattessich said the author, while suggesting repairs are not legal, has not based that assertion on facts, yet has shown "no shame in his resolve to tilt the public down a misguided path."
6. Is the school system mismanaged such that they can’t operate a sound budget and repair roofs?
Mattessich said that not only are the schools are efficiently run, but that reports, to which The Leader has access, show the district is "well down the ladder when it comes to per-pupil spend."
"We are choosing to fund roof replacements outside the operating budget because otherwise the cuts we make will be very real and very immediate," he said, adding that the Board believes cutting the budget by $4 million for the next four years would weaken the excellence in the well-rounded education provided to students.
7. If $100 million a year is not enough, then how much is enough? Where does it end?
Mattessich said when faced with this very large capital expenditure, the alternative-cutting programs-"would be a "complete disservice to Town of Westfield, to parents, as well as students and those who benefit from property values as a result of the fine school system."
8. If parents want more than that provided by the general public obligation, then should there be a surcharge for what they want?
Mattessich said while he wasn't sure the question makes sense, he believed the author is suggesting that parents with children in the district should bear more of the costs while those without children or whose children are "long gone" be left alone.
"People move to Westfield to raise their children while settling for the long-term," Mattessich said. "They do that because they know they have a school system that is committed to continuous excellence in education. That can be hard to accomplish particularly in a down economy. But excellence in education requires some backbone."
Mattessich said the Board can't change offerings year after year based on the economy "and too bad for the kids who had to be educated in tough economic times."
When he reached the final question posed by the editorial, Why is it necessary in this fine town for this column to be written? Mattessich said finally he had come upon a question with which he could agree.
"Spreading less than all the facts in a town's newspaper's editorial column in a manner intended to steer a vote a particular way and thereby abusing the public's trust should never have occurred," he concluded.
"I just want to agree with everything that you just said," said Board member Mitch Slater. "You really put it out there that facts matter and shame on the author; they could do better."
Board member Ginny Leiz said she was in full support of Mattessich's statement and added that she appreciated that he took the time and the effort to compose it.
"It is reprehensible that the public should be put in a situation like this were unfounded and unreasonable information is presented as fact," she said.
The Board will meet next on Thursday, Jan. 3 at 7:30 p.m. at 302 Elm Street.