Councilor Keefe to Bill and Lisa Stephens

Letter from Stephens', July 21, 2010:

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

Mr. Keefe Responds, July 21, 2010:

In fact, I agreed with Superintendent Alvire that some of the best speakers last night were students in our public schools. Very encouraging.... 

What was not mentioned except briefly in passing is that the Council's cut was directly in response to the union for the largest group of employees in the city walking away from the bargaining table. The Council has potential funds available - at least this year, next year looks worse - but is unwilling to part with them until a deal is struck. Right now the union has walked, triggering an evergreen clause which makes them the only group of employees to receive a pay raise this year. Since revenues to the city are flat year-over-year, that meant 20 city employees had to be laid off to pay for those increases. As a Councilor who can see one of those laid-off employees from my driveway every single morning, I couldn't in good conscience hand that money over, knowing a guy who worked for the city for 12 years had to lose his job to fund it. 

But the corollary holds true as well: if an acceptabe deal is reached with the union, the Council will release those funds, knowing other concessions were made so that every employee group chipped in to balance this year's budget. But the deal needs to be reached within the next couple of weeks, or it will be too late and the School Committee will have to make some of those cuts they discussed last night. The Council stands ready to do its part, as long as the teachers do as well. 

I appreciate you taking the time to write,

Christopher Keefe
Westfield City Council
Finance Committee