WESTFIELD - Serious budget cuts are now necessary, and in the longer term the Westfield Academy and Central School cannot continue to operate as an independent school district without risking financial catastrophe.
This was the message delivered by WACS Interim Superintendent Peggy Sauer and Business Manager Alan Holbrook at an informational budget meeting on Tuesday, May 8, which was attended by fewer than a dozen Westfield citizens in advance of this past Tuesday's vote on the annual budget.
Sauer and Holbrook outlined the major reasons for the current budget crisis. While student enrollment is declining, the state continues to mandate more programs without providing necessary funding. The tax cap law passed in 2011 limits any increases in the tax levy, and declining enrollment means state aid, which is calculated on a per-student basis, will be reduced. Student population totaled 1,100 in 1994-95, but now stands at 760 and is projected to be 629 by 2017-18.
Photo by Connie O’Connor
Westfield Academy and Central School Interim Superintendent Margaret Sauer, far left, explains the reasons the Board of Education is considering a consolidation during a public meeting held recently. Seated at the tables are members of the board and administrative staff.
At the start of the budget process, with all programs remaining unchanged, expenses would have increased by $351,000 while revenues would have decreased by approximately $400,000. During the budget process, $343,000 has been cut, and district teachers have chosen to forego their scheduled raises for the upcoming school year. Nevertheless the district will still need to draw $575,000 from the existing fund balance to balance the budget. Projecting out revenues and expenses over the next three years, Holbrook showed the entire fund balance would be exhausted by the end of the 2014-15 school year. With the ability to raise taxes becoming more difficult because of the cap, Holbrook stated the only way to continue after that time would be by consolidating with a neighboring school district. Not only does consolidation mean economies of scale, but the state would also make incentive payments for 14 years following a consolidation, with the largest portion of those payments made in the first five of those years.
Audience reaction ranged widely. On one end was Tom Thorpe, a local grape farmer for 40 years, who said the local grape crop for the year is "totally destroyed" and farmers and others in the industry would be hard-pressed to pay their taxes this year.
At the other end of the spectrum was a parent who expressed concern her children currently enrolled in high school have fewer elective options than their older siblings had just a few years ago.
Board member Mark Winslow pointed out that the WACS tax levy has remained flat for many years.
As Holbrook's graphs of future revenues and expenses made clear, WACS cannot continue on its present course. School population continues to decline, and state mandates limit cuts which can be made to items like employee benefits, now equal to 29 percent of the district budget.