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Save Westfield Schools Pens Letter to L&O Committee Members About Override Vote

Tomorrow, the City Council's Legislative and Ordinance (L&O) Committee will begin discussing and planning for a possible Proposition 2 1/2 vote this November. The position of SWS schools is that the proposal for the override—if executed the way it was introduced by Councilor Flaherty at last week's council meeting—is ill-advised and would be a disaster for our school system.

Today we mailed a letter to each of the L&O committee members outlining our position and the reasoning behind it. Please read on for the text of the correspondence.

Arlington, MA: A Model for Westfield on Proposition 2 1/2 Overrides?

Westfield has never had a Proposition 2 1/2 override vote. It's a new experience for all of us. So it's probably a good idea for us to study and learn what other Massachusetts communities have done to win voter approval for an override.

Arlington is one such town. In fact, they've had two successful override votes, one in 2011 and one in 2005. In 2011, the citizens approved a $6.49 million override and in 2005 they approved a $6 million override. The dollar amount of these override is quite substantial when you consider the average of all the winning override votes from FY 2000 to FY 2010 brought in just $546,504. In the 2011 vote, Arlington's citizens voted to increase their average household tax burden by a whopping $450/year! That's no small feat to pull off in the middle of a very bad recession. Arlington's budget, $114.3 million, is very close to Westfield's. However, one critical difference between Arlington and Westfield is the median household income. In Arlington, it's $84,907 and only $51,535 in Westfield. We'll come back to this point later.

City Councilor David Flaherty Responds to Our Essay About His Insincerity

Councilor David Flaherty has responded to the essay posted here on the Save Westfield Schools website yesterday which accused him of being insincere in his bid to place a Proposition 2 1/2 override vote before the citizens of Westfield. He posted his response to his favorite public soapbox, the Westfield MassLive Forum run by the Republican newspaper. His original response to our essay is comment #6 under post #25378 and is entitled, "Response to Paulstonian and sw03." 

For several reasons, we believe that the Mass Live Forum is a less than ideal platform for public debate so we are posting a point-by-point response to Flaherty's Mass Live comment here on our website. Flaherty's responses are in bold with our responses italicized and indented. Please read on.

 

A Very Insincere David Flaherty Proposes a Proposition 2 1/2 Override Vote

Update: Councilor Flaherty has responded to this essay.
 
At the June 21 city council meeting, Councilor David Flaherty introduced a motion to have the city council's Legislative and Ordinance (L&O) Committee consider placing a Proposition 2 1/2 override vote on the November's ballot. What follows is what Mr. Flaherty *could* have chosen to say when introducing his motion:
 
"This is a tough one. No one likes to have their taxes raised, but Proposition 2 1/2 has really put a squeeze not only on Westfield but on city's and towns across the Commonwealth. It is choking our city's ability to function. With each passing year, we are forced to make tougher and tougher decisions about what to cut and departments are fighting over dollars that just aren't there. All the department heads I've spoken to say they are working with extremely tight budgets.

An Open Apology and Frank Words for Westfield's Students

To All Westfield Students,

On behalf of all the voters and adults in Westfield, we offer our sincere apologies in advance. If you've been reading the papers lately—and if you can, be sure to remember to thank a teacher—you'll know we are about to make some fairly significant cuts to the school budget this year.  This is going to mean fewer teachers and administrators to share the workload of educating you. It will also mean that some of our best teachers are going to leave for greener pastures and go to towns and cities where they will be treated with more respect than they receive in these parts.

In short, we are about to divest in you and your future. Sorry about that.

See video
Flaherty's motion for a resolution shot down

Two School-Related Motions Rebuffed by the City Council

Two motions put forward by City Councilor Flaherty, related to the operation of Westfield's schools, were soundly rejected by other City Councilor's Thursday night. As expected, a third motion to cut the school department budget was withdrawn by Flaherty before coming up for debate. Regarding the withdrawn motion, Councilor Flaherty said there was "no need" as a result of "a lot of productive conversations we've had this week."

Flaherty Changes Mind, Will Not Propose Cutting School Budget at Next Meeting

In an email to SWS earlier this evening, regarding a proposal to rescind approval for $744,345 for our schools, City Councilor Flaherty wrote that "I will be pulling this from the agenda. The actions and discussions over last couple weeks have led to meetings and cooperative efforts that may help satisfy our objectives without the need for this motion." Though we're unsure what specific meetings and efforts he refers to, SWS applauds Flaherty's decision.

This leaves two other Flaherty motions, reported here earlier, on the agenda tomorrow night; one motion to discuss the possibility of placing a 2 1/2% override on the ballot and another more vague proposal for a resolution regarding the school budget. In his email this evening, Flaherty provided a limited explanation about the resolution, saying, "I will introduce a one page resolution that relays the concerns of members of council and taxpayers to the School Committee."

SWS will be closely monitor debate at tomorrow's City Council meeting and post video of all relevant discussion concerning the school budget.

Withdrawal of School Funding Could Come Up for a Vote at Thursday's City Council Meeting

The agenda for Thursday's meeting is out and it contains a "motion of Councilor Flaherty relative to school budget appropriation." This agenda item appears to be Councilor Flaherty's follow-up to a failed attempt at the last City Council meeting to rescind $744,345 in school budget money that was originally approved back in July.

It's unclear what kind of support Councilor Flaherty has from other City Councilors. City Councilor James Brown, in a response to an email from Save Westfield Schools last weekend, wrote, "I will not be supporting any measure to 'recover the money', as this is not realistic nor a remedy that is available to the Council." Save Westfield Schools encourages other City Councilors to do the same.

Flaherty will also be introducing two additional proposals at Thursday's meeting related to the school budget:

  • The first is a request for the City Council's evaluation of a Proposition 2 1/2 override "to fund school department performance-based salary increases in excess of 2 1/2% per year." Last week, in an online forum, Councilor Flaherty wrote, "I'm going to propose a Prop 2 1/2 override that is targeted at providing additional salary money for the school department (to pay for raises that exceed 2.5%)." In another comment he wrote, "I'm not proposing to support the measure, just to have the opportunity to get it on the ballot to give the voters a chance to let their feelings be known in a quantifiable way. I think the measure would fail by a huge margin."

    As we have pointed out, Flaherty's suggestion to that teacher salaries should not go above 2.5% is based on his very flawed analysis of how step increases affect the school budget. Other than for grandstanding, we see no value to this proposal whatsoever.
     
  • His second proposal is "for approval of resolution to Westfield School Committee relative to negotiating and executing contracts that place further financial burdens on an already stressed school department budget." It's unclear what Councilor Flaherty has in mind here. We will have to wait and see.

Why Step Increases Do Not Cost the City of Westfield More Money, Take 2

Save Westfield Schools is disheartened to see Councilor Flaherty still claiming on an online forum that step increases, even though they were frozen this year, will lead to spiraling teacher salaries.

We admit that it does sound counterintuitive. How can you possibly give many teachers raises year after year without teacher salaries eventually eating up the entire budget? We did our best to explain how in this post. Mr. Flaherty's response was to email us and accuse us of being "manipulative." Interestingly, he did not attempt to dispute our facts.

School Department Report Countering Flaherty Coming on Monday

We received word from a city official yesterday that the school department will be issuing a report to counter Flaherty's public statements about the school budget. We will post the report here as soon as it is made available to us.

Save Westfield Schools Finds Flawed Logic in Flaherty's Contract Analysis

In a second email exchange with Councilor Flaherty last weekend, Save Westfield Schools has determined that Councilor Flaherty has a fundamentally flawed analysis of the true cost of Westfield teachers' step and track increases to the City.

Flaherty Responds to Save Westfield Schools' Inquiry About His $5 million Cost Assertion

This past weekend, Save Westfield Schools had a lengthy email exchange with Councilor David Flaherty regarding his statements that the new teacher's contract would cost "$8400 per person over the life of this agreement" and cost the city "over $5 million."

But contrary to Flaherty's statement at last week's City Council meeting, SWS was able to determine that the extra $5 million cost would not be incurred over one year—the length of the current contract—but over a period of decades, on the order of at least 30 years or 40 years. That's because the extra cost comes from a $500 increase in the annual longevity benefit for teachers who work in the Westfield school system for more than 15 years. Even if we use a very conservative estimate that approximately half of Westfield's 570 teachers are eligible for the longevity benefit in any given year (for FY2011, it's actually less than 1/3, or about 180), it would take a little over 35 years before the extra longevity payout costs would reach Mr. Flaherty's $5 million figure. And even with a conservative estimate  of $60 million average budget over the next 35 years (the FY2011 budget is about $52 million), the $5 million figure amounts to only a 0.2% increase in the total cost of the school budget.
 
View the email exchange with Councilor Flaherty in its entirety. 

Teachers Counter Flaherty's Allegations

Late Thursday evening, City Councilor David Flaherty made allegations that Westfield school administrators and the Westfield Education Association covered-up and misrepresented the terms of the new teacher's union contract negotiated in July. Today, the WEA released a statement to counter Flaherty's charges and called him out for "present[ing] erroneous inflammatory information that suits his need, be contrary and incendiary with people who could help him gain the correct information, and go out of his way to create adversarial relationships with other elected officials and bodies, rather than alliances."

Flaherty Says School Committee and Teachers Union "Snookered" City Council and Public

After last night's City Council meeting, in an email sent to all Westfield City Councilors, Councilor David Flaherty continued his serious accusations that the school department deceived the City Council and the public. He also implicated the teacher's union in a cover-up over what was in the contract. He wrote, "We got snookered, and the teachers union and the school department have mislead [sic] the public."

Flaherty also explicitly stated his intention to call for a vote to "recover the over $700,000 that the council approved for the school department based on intentionally misleading information provided us." The email contained a photocopy of the Memorandum of Understanding along with his opinion that there were costs negotiated into the contract that were hidden from the public to the tune of "over $5 million." As pointed out earlier by SWS, the WEA made the Memorandum of understanding public on their website since at least August 23rd.

See video

Flaherty Accuses School Department of Lying About Teacher's Contract, Wants to Rescind $744,000 in School Funding

Councilor David Flaherty resurrected debate over the 2011 school budget when he leveled serious accusations against the school department at the tail end of tonight's City Council meeting. Flaherty didn't mince words by stating "we were lied and misled to [sic]" about the agreement between the Westfield Education Association and the school department. Flaherty also expressed his desire to rescind the $744,345 approved last month by the City Council. However, because Flaherty did not place a motion 48 hours prior to the meeting, no vote was taken regarding the issue. Flaherty tried to take up the issue anyway, claiming that the matter constituted an emergency, and asked for a suspension of the rules to debate. His motion to suspend the rules was voted down 7 to 5. But in a video recorded by Save Westfield Schools, Councilor Flaherty could be heard saying to Councilor Mary O'Connell, seated to his left, that he intended to place a motion on the next meeting agenda to address the issue. The next City Council meeting is September 16th.

Westfield Schools to Receive $1.4 Million in Federal Stimulus Money

You know that nice little lift you get when you find a wad of cash in a winter coat or spring jacket you haven't worn for months? It's a great feeling because for once you have money unexpectedly coming in instead of always going out. Well, that's about how we feel here at SWS because Westfield has a good-sized chunk of completely unanticipated cash coming its way! According to an aide to Senator Knapik, Peter Miller, Westfield will receive $1.4 million in funding by way of the federal government. And it couldn't have come at a better time with all the cutbacks and layoffs we've had as a result of withering tax revenues during this economic downturn.  Out of a total current budget of around $52 million, $1.4 million represents a very significant amount of money for us. Save Westfield Schools will be following up with school officials to determine what jobs will be saved by this windfall. According the an article appearing in the Boston Globe, the money should be hitting in a few weeks.

City Council Establishes Special Committee on Schools

Last month, Save Westfield Schools posed the following question to many of the city councilors:

Will you work with the citizens of Westfield, and all concerned parties, toward finding a better long-term solution and mechanism for resolving future differences with the teachers?

Well, it looks like the City Council might have taken a shine to our advice and has established an ad hoc committee to research the budget and operation of the school department. The committee is large, with a whopping seventeen positions on it. Those positions are as follows:

  • 3 City Councilors
  • 3 School Committee Members
  • 3 Members of the Administration (Mayor, school department, principals)
  • 3 Teachers (chosen by the union)
  • 3 Parents (At-Large supplied from the PTO’s or other volunteers)
  • 2 Students (one each from the leaders of the respective student bodies of Westfield Vocational and Westfield High School)

Westfield Schools Saved!

By a unanimous vote, 12-0, the City Council did the right thing and voted to place $744,345 in the budget to offset the money it cut back in June. Several councilor's mentioned the numerous emails they had received on the issue. So great job everyone!

There is much more work to be done, however.  Our schools are not out of the woods yet. We'll be counting on you to stay informed and involved in the process. Please check back here frequently to stay tuned on the latest news. We'll also be sending out periodic emails when there are other interesting developments. So if you haven't already, please sign up for our email updates.

Thanks again!

Westfield Teachers Vote to Accept Contract

Members of the Westfield Education Association, Unit A, approved the tentative contract. Details of the contract can be found at http://westfield.massteacher.org/news/contract.html. This puts the ball squarely back in the court of the City Council who will vote on Thursday to move $744,345 out of the stabilization account and back into the city's budget where it can be used to offset the $864,345 that was cut by the City Council in June.

Let's not take this vote for granted! Please call your you City Councilor and tell them to vote yes on putting the money back in the budget with no strings attached. Click here for more details on the vote.

City Council Special Meeting Set for 7pm on Thursday

The City Council will be holding a special meeting to vote on a recommendation from the mayor that $744,345 be placed into the school budget. As mentioned earlier, a super majority, or 2/3 of all city councilors present, is needed to pass the recommendation. All 13 city councilors are eligible to vote. The meeting will be held at City Hall located at 59 Court Street.

Save Westfield Schools is asking that all concerned Westfield residents turn out to this vote to ensure the recommendation wins passage. We need to send a strong message to the City Council just how important this issue is to us. We also urge you to contact all city councilors before the vote to make sure they do the right thing on Thursday.

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