Westfield needs to invest in educating its students

By STEVE COCKRAM

Recent letters to various newspapers have contained some misconceptions about the Westfield Academy and Central Schools’ 2018-19 budget. The WACS budget is going up by $834,000, a significant amount. This 5 percent increase will be paid primarily by state and federal reimbursement on services that WACS provides to its students. The local share will go up by 2 percent, which is only 60 percent of the maximum allowed under the complex tax cap calculations. In total, this equates to less than a dollar a week additional taxes on a $100,000 property.

The spending side of this current year’s budget contained many factors that kept it nearly flat. On the other hand, next year’s budget has several specific items that inflate next year. Of the $834,000 increase, we need additional spending in specific areas for our student’s education:

• $165,000 for BOCES capital projects. WACS is part of BOCES and this is our share. BOCES capital projects are mainly for better career and technical education (CTE). For many years the mantra has been that students should automatically go to college. There are a lot of good paying jobs that need advanced technical education rather than a college degree (auto mechanics, agriculture, web design, etc). Our BOCES is positioning itself to provide this education. Our portion this year is scheduled to drop in subsequent budgets.

• $128,000 for CTE students. Yes, more and more WACS students are taking advantage of this technical education. This is reflected in the added cost. Given the timing of these BOCES charges, this will remain flat in a subsequent budget.

• $200,000 for salaries. Education remains a labor intensive endeavor. Our most recent teacher (WTA) contract negotiations recognized our taxpayer’s inability to pay ever larger shares and it keeps annual increases to one of the lowest in the County. WACS also has one of the most veteran staffs in western NY. As these teachers (regretfully) retire, new hires will come in at a lower cost.

• School safety has repeatedly been in the news nationally. WACS and the village are both funding a new School Resource Officer (SRO).

• Public schools have an obligation to provide education for any student that moves into the district. Sometimes, this means sudden additional services for children who have had to leave their homes due to natural disasters and have found a welcoming community at WACS. This year, for example, there were more ELL students because of hurricane-related disasters. These services will decrease as the children become acclimated and/or return to their former homes.

• $210,000 for employee benefits. Once salaries are settled, benefits are additional costs. Although the consortium of Chautauqua County schools has kept health insurance cost increases lower than average, all health insurance is going up faster than inflation. The state retirement systems throws a wild card into the budget each year, annually adjusting the additional percentage that each school must contribute for every employee.

• $118,000 for Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK), in the school year and summer, is a relatively new educational service that WACS provides. Education does not start at age 5, and for kids with delays, the sooner they get caught up, the less it will ultimately cost to educate them. The state’s fiscal accountability report says that WACS’ special ed students cost about $5,500 more than general education students. It is much better to spend earlier in a child’s educational career than for what might be a lifetime. This spending will be flat in subsequent budgets.

• Our youngest generation is very comfortable with technology. WACS is slowly rolling out a 1:1 student-to-computer device initiative. This will cost and added $52,000 next year. This again should be relatively flat in subsequent budgets.

The WACS administrative team has had three objectives in building next year’s budget:

• To stay within the tax cap (and it comes in at 60 percent of the cap amount)

• To improve the quality of our educational program for every WACS student (like CTE and UPK) while maintain the financial integrity of the district and being responsible to taxpayers.

ª Use of reserves will balance educational needs and long term financial stability.

I believe that this budget does those three things. Yes, there is a big jump this year, but it will not be the norm. Further, the local tax levy stays well within the tax cap amount. I encourage all to support this budget and vote for it on Tuesday from 2 to 8 p.m. Note that the location has changed to the High School Gym lobby, for a shorter walk in.

The opinions expressed here are my own, and not of the WACS district or its board.

Steve Cockram is a member of the Westfield Academy and Central School board.

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