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School Board Introduces $50.5 Million Budget for 1997-1998; The Lowest Percentage Increase in 15 Years

By ANNA MURRAY - Specially Written for The Westfield Leader

The Westfield Board of Education on Tuesday introduced its tentative 1997-1998 school budget of $50,527,495, representing a 0.95 percentage increase over last year’s spending plan, the lowest increase the school district has seen in 15 years.

The percentage increase equals $0.059 in the tax rate per $100 of a home’s assessed value, or a 2.47 percent increase in the amount to be raised through local taxes.

In describing the budget development process, Dr. William J. Foley, Superintendent of Schools, announced, "Teachers, taxes, and technology, that is what this budget is all about."

"We've developed a budget with one of the lowest tax increases while still adding six new elementary and three new high school positions, and we've included over $800,000 to provide adequate technology in our schools," he continued.

"I am confident that we've come up with the best compromise to deal with high property taxes, increased enrollment and the need for improved technology," the Superintendent added.

"We are proud of our efforts to keep the increase down, especially in light of the fact we’ve had a 2.1 percent increase in enrollment and only 5.8 percent of our revenues come from the state," said board Budget/Finance Committee Chairman John M. Toriello.

In addition to the enrollment jump, capital outlays from the budget were needed to fund the district’s 12 new classrooms in lieu of proceeds from the failed construction bond.

Assistant Superintendent for Business and Board Secretary Dr. Robert C. Rader, reflecting on the small amount of state funding, remarked that "the new funding legislation from the state made it almost impossible to do a new budget. The rules on calculation and regulation are at best difficult to follow and illogical.

"The rules changed every day. Just today we were required to download new budget software from the state into the system," he observed.

Before considering any specific budgetary needs of the district, Dr. Rader first had to determine into which state- regulated "thorough and efficient" (T and E) level Westfield would be categorized. This level represents the state's definition of what a district needs to execute a "thorough and efficient" delivery of the Core Curriculum Content Standards.

"The T and E is not based on any real analysis. It is quite arbitrary," said Mr. Toriello. "The state took an average of what the 30 neediest districts are spending to establish a T and E level."

Calculations from that formula indicate that Westfield is spending $2,052 more per pupil than the state deems necessary.

"Obviously what the state deems necessary and what a Westfield parent has come to expect of our school system are incongruent," said Finance Committee member Ginger L. Hardwick.

As the meeting progressed, Dr. Rader got specific with exactly where budget dollars are designated to be spent. Of the total budget expenditures, 51.9 percent is earmarked for instruction. Included under the instruction umbrella are: regular teacher salaries, supplies, regular purchase orders, special education, athletics and summer school.

Instructional support, which includes libraries, school administration, health, staff training, child study teams, speech classes and media, account for 16 percent of the total 1997-1998 budget. Accounting for 26 percent of the budget are Administrative Support expenditures.

Dr. Rader mentioned the following efforts as key in keeping these costs down: reduction in health benefits and administrative salaries; the elimination of one administrative position; two secretarial positions, and a reduction in the expected district surplus or free balance.

Also included among administrative support expenditures are: transportation, liability insurance, and utilities. Smaller expenditures include debt service, 1.2 percent; capital outlays, 3.8 percent, and special revenue, 1.2 percent.

Included in this year's revised state funding legislation is a cap on the district's free balance of budget surplus. In the past, Westfield's free balance was maintained at a healthy 7 or 8 percent of the year's total budget, according to the school board.

"Our schools are old," said Dr. Rader. "We have 100-year-old buildings to maintain. Boilers go, roofs leak...we need to put dollars aside for these and other reasons."

The new state law requires a cap of 6 percent of the total budget on the district's free balance. To avoid state penalties, the Finance Committee allocated $275,000 of free balance originally slated for projects in 1998.

Therefore, the replacement of the Franklin Elementary School roof, and the replacement of windows at Tamaques Elementary School, both projects that have already been started, will be completed and paid for this year.

Keith S. Hertell, a member of the Finance Committee, outlined how budget dollars will reinforce the school board’s commitment to technology in the district. At the elementary level, $140,002 will be spent on library automation. On the intermediate level, $299,342 will be spent on computers, laser disc players, and teaching materials for geography, science and mathematics.

At Westfield High School, $182,500 will be spent on mathematic resource center computers, humanities pilots, Internet and online access, as well as an interactive television classroom. The amount to be spent district-wide on staff training will be $69,615, and $115,000 has been allocated for the internal network.

Ms. Hardwick elaborated upon one state edict to the district that she and other board members found most troubling.

"In a unified and already lean budget, we've been told to separate line items, artificially, that the state says does not directly affect curriculum core content," she said.

"Voters will be asked to first vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on the budget and then ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on these separated items. The danger exists that the voter will deem these items as fluff and nothing could be further from the truth," said Ms. Hardwick.

Westfield is required to break out $1,594,505 from the school budget into a separate question on the Tuesday, April 15, ballot. That number is based on a formula specific to the district T and E level.

The Finance Committee chose items that would not interfere with the district's ability to open schools in September or would not disrupt successful ongoing programs.

Programs that do not directly affect core curriculum, such as the primary enrichment program and Westfield High School programs, new middle school sports, capital outlay projects and library automation, are among those listed on the second question.

If the second question is voted down on April 15, it will be forwarded to the Westfield Town Council. There, line items, or part of the line items, will be approved or slashed. There is no second chance for appeal, and state law dictates the item could not be re-budgeted, or funded the following year.

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