Westwood Public Schools Proposed FY 2024 Budget: Cuts in Level Services While Costs Rise


Image by Megan Rexazin from Pixabay.

Twice in the space of the one week, Westwood Public Schools (WPS) Superintendent Emily Parks was in the unenviable position of introducing a proposed FY 2024 budget to Westwood's elected and appointed town officials, and having to explain that while residents will pay more next year, Westwood schools will experience cuts to level services and teachers will have to be let go.

Superintendent Parks presented the proposed FY 2024 budget to Westwood's School Committee on February 9th and the Finance & Warrant Commission (FinCom) on February 14th. She noted that FY 2024  is "a very challenging year" for budget planning. The proposed FY 2024 budget of $54,102,057 represents a 4.5 percent increase from the prior year's budget of $51,762,397.

Inflation is a driver, observed Ms. Parks. Heating fuel costs increased by over 30 percent. A new bus contract increased by 7 percent. Special education van transportation increased by 4 percent.

Additionally, there are more unexpected special education cost increases. The district unexpectedly gained a number of special education students. Additionally, the state’s Operational Services Division advised WPS to increase its budget for out-of-district special education tuitions by 14 percent - about $300,000. The typical annual increase for this budget item is around 2 percent, said Ms. Parks.

Another significant cost driver is unknown teacher salary increases. The exact expense for salaries is unknown because School Committee and Westwood Teachers Association (WTA) are still negotiating over a new contract. School Committee's January offer was not accepted by WTA. A new offer has been made.

The revised budget apparently incorporates assumptions based on the new contract offer, including increases to teacher salaries, and reduction of teaching positions. 

The School Department has been cooperating with other town departments to present the school budget as one piece of a cohesive, overall town budget for FY 2024. The overall budget and proposed tax increase is limited, as required by Proposition 2 1/2. Like WPS, other town departments are likely also wrestling with the effects of inflation as they plan their individual piece of the town's overall budget.

WPS Teachers Provide Public Comment on the School Budget

Catherine Starsiak is a Westwood resident and 15-year veteran teacher in Westwood’s elementary schools. She also has two children enrolled in WPS. 

During the School Committee’s public comment period, Ms. Starsiak opined, “I am appalled that the school administration and town Select Board are willing to cut staff, refuse requests for just compensation, and deny teachers’ plea for time and resources desperately needed to address the changing face of education of this pandemic area.” 

Ms. Starsiak urged School Committee members, “Make the hard ask to the town. Demand that our school budget needs more from the town. The community will support you, and our kids will get the education we have always wanted for them,” she said. Other attendees applauded when she finished her remarks.

Sarah Waterman also provided emotional public comment. A lifelong Westwood resident, Ms. Waterman has a son enrolled in WPS kindergarten. She has been an elementary school teacher at the Deerfield School for 13 years. 

Ms. Waterman gave an emotional thanks to her own, childhood WPS teachers for shaping her. She remembered the kindergarten teacher who helped her to overcome shyness, another for helping her see that random acts of kindness can change the world, and a high school teacher who ignited her own interest in teaching.

“Teachers are bright, compassionate people and pass the love of learning to students,” Ms. Waterman said, adding that Westwood teachers are the reason why she chose to live in town. “Teachers are the foundational part of what make this town so great.”

The emotion with which Ms. Starsiak and Ms. Waterman spoke was related to the ongoing contractual negotiations. School Committee's January contract offer to WTA would have resulted in a reduction of faculty/professional positions by 1.5 Full Time Equivalent Employees (FTE). However, the new contract offer reduces faculty/professional positions by 8.6 FTE.

Teaching Staff Reductions

The new staff reductions mean that some aspects of the teaching structure would have to change, says Ms. Parks. She notes that 10.8 FTE support staff would be hired in place of the staff that is let go. 

Under the revised School Department budget, impacts would be experienced at all levels - Westwood High School, Thurston Middle School, and the district’s five elementary schools.

Some changes to staffing would have occurred in any year. But Ms. Parks noted that difficult choices in the FY 2024 budget year include:

  • Reduce 0.5 FTE high school instruction technology
  • Reduce 0.5 FTE middle school instructional technology
  • Reduce 1.0 FTE high school administrative assistant
  • Add 2.0 FTE ABA tutors
  • Reduce 1.0 FTE high school science teacher
  • Reduce 1.0 FTE high school math teacher
  • Reduce 0.4 FTE high school social studies teacher
  • Reduce 0.1 FTE professional development coordinator
  • Reduce 0.4 FTE high school public speaking teacher
  • Reduce 0.4 FTE middle school performing arts(music) teacher
  • Reduce 2.5 FTE elementary math specialists
  • Reduce 2.8 FTE elementary literacy specialists
  • Add 3.8 FTE literacy paraprofessionals
  • Add 4.0 FTE math paraprofessionals

The staff cuts would result in larger class sizes at the high school. The average class size would increase from 18 to 20 students, according Ms. Parks. However, course offerings would not be reduced.

At the middle school, staff reductions mean that the co-teaching instructional model for chorus students would end. Only one of the two, current chorus instructors would remain in their position.

In the elementary schools, 5.3 FTE literacy and math intervention specialists would lose their positions. In their place, 7.8 FTE paraprofessionals would be hired in a change of instruction structure. Elementary class sizes would remain small.

“I want to acknowledge, I know that the School Committee didn’t really want to make cuts to staff. None of us do, right?" said Ms. Parks. "We have wonderful teachers here and we don’t want to lose highly skilled people. And at the same time, we also want to compensate our teachers, right?. . .We’re trying to thread that needle at this point,” said Ms. Parks at the School Committee meeting.

Reactions from School Committee and FinCom Members

School Committee member Maya Plotkin noted that her fellow committee members “wholeheartedly agree” with public comments regarding the quality and dedication of Westwood’s teachers. “That is why we’re feeling so much pain. We know how much these teachers are worth, and in a real world, in a world that we all want to live in, we want to give them as much as we can. But we also have this bucket of money, and we need to make both things true, and this is the only way we can do that. And none of us are happy sitting up here.”

Said School Committee Chair Charles Donahue, “We’ve heard occasionally from people saying, ‘The teachers feel like they’re not respected.’ I don’t know anybody that respects them more than us. We regularly say it . . . .We know that the backbone of our system, besides good administration, is our teachers.”

Following Ms. Park’s February 14th presentation to FinCom, committee member George Laham remarked that the majority of the 4.5 percent budget increase is related to teacher salaries. 

“It does seem like you’re being forced to go down a road of cutting highly educated specialists and let them go and swap them out for IAs [instructional assistants] or paraprofessionals. . . . It seems like we’re getting to a product that might not keep us at that quality level, and I think we just need to be cognizant of that. You’re in a very no-win situation and that concerns me,” observed Mr. Laham.

FinCom Chair George Hertz added, “This is probably one of the most challenging years I’ve seen. . . . And at the end of the day, we only have so much revenue that we bring in. Both on the municipal side and the school side. . .”

FinCom members thanked Ms. Parks for her service in preparing this last WPS budget before she departs for her new position in the next academic year as executive director of The Education Collaborative (TEC).

Ms. Parks followed her earlier remarks of this being a challenging budget year with a note of encouragement. “I think that the Westwood Public Schools is in great shape and that this community should be really proud of the system that it has built over time. And this is a challenging year. We are going to have to make some difficult choices. But we have had the luxury of being able to grow the district over time, and build some great programs. These are hard choices to make, but we’re going to weather them.”

Next Steps in Budget Process

Residents who are interested in commenting on the School Department budget should mark the dates of March 9 and March 28, 2023 on their calendars. March 9th is when the School Committee holds a public hearing and votes on the budget. March 28th is when FinCom is scheduled to hold its final public hearing on all warrant articles. At that meeting, FinCom is also expected to take a vote and make a recommendation.

In April, the finalized warrant articles will be mailed in a warrant book to residents for consideration in advance of the Town Meeting. The May 1st Town Meeting is where residents will vote to approve or reject the warrant articles that have been proposed.

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