WESTFIELD — On Tuesday, during a regular meeting of the Westfield mayor and council, local officials said that while there may not be quite as many crossing guards stationed around town as in years past, pedestrians will still be able to safely navigate the community’s busy streets.
Westfield started the school year with 35 fully-staffed crossing-guard posts, five less than it had at the beginning of the 2021-2022 academic calendar, but three more than it had by the end of June.
Town Administrator Jim Gildea explained that the decision to eliminate certain posts (including two south-side intersections at Boulevard and Clifton Street and Boulevard and Grove Street) came amid “staffing shortages and Covid challenges” that left the community scrambling to fill vacant posts last year. When a post was left unattended for any period of time, Mr. Gildea said, Westfield’s police officers were asked to take time away from their other obligations to man the town’s crosswalks.
“All of these decisions revolve around public safety,” Mr. Gildea said. “Our police officers are ready and willing to do whatever they need to, to make sure that all of our advertised posts are filled, but they have too many other responsibilities to make it a daily occurrence.”
In August, the council voted 5 to 1 to approve a new contract with All City Management Services (ACMS), a privatized crossing-guard service headquartered in California that has been partnering with Westfield for the past three years. In order to combat staffing challenges, Mr. Gildea explained Tuesday, the new contract includes an hourly wage increase for all crossing guards, as well as three guaranteed paid snow days for the school year.
Westfield Police Chief Christopher Battiloro said Tuesday that his department was in “full support” of the town’s decision to renew the agreement.
“I want to thank the mayor and our public safety community for recognizing that there was a problem here,” he said. “There was a significant commitment of police resources to cover vacant crossing-guard posts, and that has a very adverse effect on public safety. It makes our officers unavailable for emergency responses. On some days, as many as 15, 16 or 17 police officers were simultaneously called to cover crossing-guard posts. We simply could not sustain that.”
All in all, Chief Battiloro said, Westfield police officers were asked to cover over 1,000 crossing-guard shifts between September and June of last year.
And while some residents (including Councilman Mark LoGrippo, who cast the only dissenting vote in the August decision) have raised questions about the move to eliminate certain posts from the roster, Councilman and Public Safety Committee Chair Mike Dardia said Tuesday that it was the only fair and equitable way to handle a challenging situation.
“As we’ve seen nationwide, labor shortages continue to be an issue, which has impacted the fulfillment of posts,” he said. “In terms of how the posts were chosen, the committee focused on crossing assistance at intersections with the highest pedestrian volume, which are typically those closest to the schools, and at those located on state and county roads, which tend to have more traffic. Ultimately, we have 35 posts in total — three more than last year — in order to include posts on county roads at Central and Sycamore, Central and Cambridge, and Mountain and Kimball. The expectation with 35 posts is that staffing fulfillment levels will be greatly improved so that police can focus on law enforcement and public safety during the busiest times on our roads — school drop-off and pickup.”
Still, Mr. LoGrippo said Tuesday, the new maps seem to favor certain parts of the community over others.
“The big issue is that you have three big schools all on the south side — the high school, Lincoln [Early Childhood Education Center] and Holy Trinity. The number of crossing guards in relation to the number of students on the north side is good, but the south side has not been that fortunate,” he said.
“This isn’t about North side versus South side,” Mr. Dardia responded. “We care about all of our students, regardless of where they live, and we’re doing our best to cover those posts with ACMS and with the police.”
The $520,028 contract with ACMS will remain in effect from September 1 through June 30 of this year.
Longtime Westfield crossing guard Jessica Rinaldi said Tuesday that she appreciated the council’s efforts to reach a fair and appropriate arrangement with ACMS.
“I’m really happy to hear that there is going to be a pay raise for the crossing guards, but also that we’re finally going to get our [three paid] snow days that we were told we would get two years ago,” Ms. Rinaldi said.