Ed Dypa decried the ever increasing education budget, and asked Gene Nocera, Patricia Charles, and Dan Drew when it would be held constant from one year to the next. He said that his pension was constant, and the relentless increase in taxes for the schools might force seniors like himself out of their homes.
Dypa's question came after a 30 minute presentation at the quarterly Westfield Residents Association meeting, by Superintendent Charles on the schools and the budget request.
Charles began by highlighting the challenges and the accomplishments of public education in our city. She said that the racial and economic diversity of the student population was both a strength and a challenge: 48% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, 56% enter school without having attended a quality pre-school, and up to 32% experienced food insecurity. By many measures, the schools are thriving: the High School was selected for the AP Honor Roll for increasing access to advanced placement courses, the High School chemistry team won the state Science Olympiad, the girls soccer team was undefeated in soccer, and the Woodrow Wilson Middle School won an award for sportsmanship.
Charles said that the Board's request for a 7% budget increase "is a large increase." She explained that 75% of the budget goes to salaries, which increase according to contracts, and benefits, which also have increased costs. Other factors behind the increase are costs for critical technology, state mandates for teacher certification and assessment, and tuition for students who attend magnet and charter schools.
Mayor Drew addressed Dypa's frustration at the increased budget. He acknowledged the inherent tension between the need to keep property taxes low, especially for those on a fixed income, and the need to cover the increasing costs for education. He said that this tension could be reduced if education funding were not based on property taxes, but instead came from a more progressive tax. Drew pointed to many steps that the city and the schools were taking to reduce expenses, including those for transportation, energy, legal services.
Dypa also complained that it was impossible to know how the schools were spending money, because the budget was not transparent, and there were unjustified transfers between different line items.
Nocera, the Chair of the Board of Education, addressed both of these concerns. He admitted that the education budget could not be displayed and integrated with the municipal budget because of technical reasons, but he said that the education budget was transparent, available to the public, and clear to the elected Board of Education members. He said line item transfers were rare, and were always presented at the public meetings of the Board of Education.
Drs. Charles and Nocera will reprise their presentation tonight at City Hall, when the Common Council holds a public hearing on the education budget. That meeting begins at 7PM.
The Council is required by statute to approve a final budget by May 15th.