Westwood School Committee Approves Superintendent's Proposed FY'25 Budget


Westwood School Committee members unanimously voted to approve Superintendent Timothy Piwowar’s proposed FY 2025 operating budget and capital budget for Westwood Public Schools (WPS), a decision which makes room for the addition of Digital Literacy and Computer Science (DLCS) instruction in elementary grades as a "Specials" offering by replacing certain offerings of Art, Instrumental Music, and General Music in second, fourth and fifth grades.

School Committee Chair Tony Mullin and Superintendent Piwowar are planning to present the proposed budget to Westwood’s Finance and Warrant Commission on Monday, February 12th.

During the public hearing on the budget, the School Committee heard from one resident, although it was noted that more residents had provided written comments outside of the hearing. 

Resident Tom Pickering commented on what he viewed as a flawed process in the decision to change elementary school Specials. He suggested that those involved in the WPS music program had not been invited to give input on the budget conversation, while noting that a satisfactory outcome is unlikely without these experts included in the conversation. He also noted that the outcome of the proposed budget will be unsuccessful, where a 1:12 band teacher to student ratio will become 1:25. He notes that this will lead to a frustrating experience for students struggling to learn. He also noted that matching music instructors generally to lessons requiring specific skill on a particular instrument would not be ideal, stating that a science teacher teaching a math class will not produce the best outcome.

While the public hearing closed without any committee member comment, School Committee members voiced their thoughts before taking the vote.

Said School Committee Clerk Maya Plotkin, “This is difficult because you know, on the one hand, we have always made that [music] a priority and we’ve invested in that and the fact that our kids have been able to have general music and take an instrument has been [ ] really remarkable. On the other hand, I see the need for DLCS and we have a limited day.”

In response to School Committee member Dorothy Parmelee's question of how the superintendent arrived at his plan to change the elementary Specials schedule, Mr. Piwowar explained his thinking. He noted that before arriving at a decision to reduce art and music staff, any proposed FY'25 budget would have included staff reductions, “in any case.”

“There’s no way for me to say this without sounding heartless when I say it. But part of my job as superintendent is to find efficiencies in our staffing models, to make sure that we’re using our resources as appropriately as possible to make sure that we’re able to deliver services to kids,” said the superintendent. 

Mr. Piwowar noted that he undertook the examination of the  delivery of elementary Specials as an opportunity to be consistent with the district’s strategic plan.

School Committee member JoAnna French said, “As a parent of a child who’s deeply invested in the music curriculum and has benefitted greatly from the curriculum in Westwood, it saddens me that these are the tough choices we have to make.” She noted that just as students have had a chance to be exposed to music and develop an interest in it at the elementary school level, there should be the same opportunity for students to develop an interest in computer science.

School Committee Chair Mullin  noted that the greatest limitation is the small amount of time spent in schools – “only” six hours and twenty minutes a day.

Vice Chair Amanda Phillips noted her disappointment that the process behind the decision was not more collaborative and inclusive. However, she felt urgency in including DLCS in the WPS elementary curriculum.  

“I think everybody knows so many kids are struggling right now, and I think everybody would probably agree that social media and cyberbullying and all those things have an impact. So that’s why I’m really disappointed by having to make this trade. But I do feel a sense of urgency to enhance the technology education and I feel that would be in the best interests of the students at this point,” said Ms. Phillips.

Following Ms. Phillips comments, the chair moved the discussion to action items, including the vote on whether to approve the proposed FY’25 WPS budget. All members were unanimous in favor, approving a WPS operating budget for FY’25 of $56,763,603, and an FY’25 capital budget of $1,017,000.

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Even as someone who has spent most of his life in computers and technology--since my parents bought me a used Radio Shack TRS-80 back in the 80s when I was 12, I question the need for our schools to be putting so much emphasis on digital literacy and computer science. These are things that are so prevalent in daily life, I don't see a need to spend valuable time in school trying to teach them. It is great to have advanced STEM classes and options at the high school, but teaching computer science to elementary school students can turn what would be an exciting novel idea into rote exercises in creating silly "no-code" programs to draw boxes. I would rather kids be challenged to learn different things like music, art, and foreign languages. If they are interested, they will pick up the computer stuff on their own and likely enjoy it more than if it is presented as another required subject. With respect to navigating social media, that's not really a technology issue; that is more a social issue and absolutely needs to be addressed. But using TikTok responsibly has nothing to do with computer science. Finally, (sorry to sound like a grumpy oldster!), but even resuming the teaching of handwriting would be more important from my perspective. Being able to write legibly (maybe not necessarily cursive) is a vital skill that is needed in school to learn math (solving equations, showing work) and as an adult (using whiteboards to communicate ideas and develop solutions to problems.) These "old-school" things are much more important than making kids learn coding at an early age.

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Unfortunately, voters should have thought twice before thinking it was a good idea to build a $100M elementary school.  Costs associated with the increases in staffing and maintenance for that building alone ate up desperately needed money for FY'25 that would have covered the costs needed to maintain programming of the arts, music, etc.

We didn't need that overbuilt and over priced building.  Our children were not academically suffering with what existed.

But, as a result of that misguided decision, now the suffering begins.

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