Councilor Flaherty to Bill & Lisa Stephens

Email from Stephens, July 21:

Dear City Councilors:

As concerned parents of two children in the Westfield public schools, we attended the School Committee's Finance Committee meeting last night.

The City Council has a duty to be a fiscal watchdog. But councilors also have an obligation to ensure that the city provides an adequate level of vital services. By becoming overzealous fiscal watchdogs and making devastating cuts to the School Department budget, councilors have failed the city's parents and children.

Considering the comments of speakers at the meeting, and the large crowd applauding them, those of you who took the time to attend last night should have received this message loud and clear.

We are in the midst of the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression, so cuts are expected as the city brings expenses in line with revenue. But it's clear from the meeting last night that enough is enough. The city has the funding to support its schools. And taxpayers expect you to provide that funding.

We were impressed with the tone of last night's meeting. We've attended similar public forums in other communities, where people come to vent their anger about the hot-button issue of the moment. People typically let their emotions rule the day, creating an unruly mob-like atmosphere that descends into anger, bitterness and name-calling. There was none of that last night, which speaks volumes about our community and its support of public education.

We deserve a City Council that shows the same level of support and respect for our public schools.

Bill and Lisa Stephens

Response from Flaherty, July 21:

Dear Bill,

I too was thrilled to see the turnout last night. I share your concern for schools. I voted against the mayor's proposed school budget and the council adjustment because I didn't want to see these cuts - and I particularly didn't want to see them while we're giving out millions in raises.

I want to make clear, the council did not make these devastating cuts, the school department recommended them in order to satisfy a quite reasonable budget request (the school budget is about $85 million - the mayor was asking for concessions of about $300,000 and, in my opinion only, the council was looking for a tad more. In the big scheme of things, either number is only 1/2 a percent point of their budget and should be quite doable).

None of us want to see music, art, sports, libraries, tech programs, or foreign languages cut. However, the mayor and school department would rather cut these programs than negotiate for fiscal realities with the unions or attempt to control costs in other manners (such as consolidating common services between the school dept and city hall). Their suggested cuts come right out of the typical school budget crisis play book. Across the country, and even in our own city as you heard last night, when the schools face financial challenges, they target music, arts, and sports because they know this will infuriate students and parents. They know this infuriation will likely lead to increased pressure to come up with the money.

Year-after-year the school department has been submitting budgets that pay out big raises. They balance these budgets by cutting staff and programs. Last year they gave out an average of 7.6% and this year they proposed 4.23%. This year, before the council voted, the school department's original budget included cuts to librarians, foreign language, English as a second language, tech programs, councilors, and more. Over the last few years, they've layed off almost 100 personnel. This has to stop. We can't keep cutting programs and teachers. In my opinion, the only way we have to fix this problem is to slow down the rate of pay increases. 85% of the budget is labor related - there is no other place to make adjustments.

Contrary to the message you heard last night, we do not have the cash to pay for this. The only way the mayor is able to balance this budget is by drawing reserve funds and by using long-term debt to pay for things we should be paying for with cash. It's like a family living on credit cards to pay the electric bills. Like many cities, Westfield is in tough shape financially. In the last month alone, we borrowed about $3.25 million to pay for engineering design work and a fire truck that a financially strong city would pay for with cash.

I haven't decided how I will vote next week, but I will do what I think is right.

FYI, the mayor has offered us a big carrot... he promised to restore not only the programs affected by the $860K cut, but he promised to restore the librarians and middle school foreign language program that was cut this year and last year.

I hope this all works out in the next week, but a lot depends on how realistic the unions will be when it comes to negotiations.

I encourage you to contact the union leadership as well.

Thank you very much for contacting me.


Dave Flaherty
Westfield City Councilor

PS. Next year is not looking much better. Even if we restore these funds, the projected automatic contractual increases alone for next year are more than doublle the $860K. What are we going to do then? What if the state doesn't restore chapter 70 funds to previous levels? What if they cut local aid again? We need a long-term game plan, and controlling growth in expenses has to be a large part of it.