Westfield School Budget Should Set Off Alarms

On April 9 the Westfield Academy and Central School (WACS) Board of Education (BOE) approved an operating budget for the 2018-2019 school year which is nearly one million dollars more than the budget for the current school year. To put this $834,384 increase in perspective, the BOE has approved a one-year increase that would take the majority of Westfield’s residents two or more decades to earn, and for a significant portion of our residents they will never earn this amount of money in their entire working life.

One of the immediate questions this budget raises is why is it necessary to raise the budget so much in a single year for a small rural school? In April of 2017 when the BOE approved the school budget for the 2017-2018 school year they approved a one-year increase of $29,497. That amount seemed very reasonable for a school which has seen either declines or a static student population for many years now. Twelve months later the BOE wants an additional $800,000 when you compare next year’s school budget to the current school year. It is also important to note WACS is receiving a 3.08 percent increase this year in foundation aid from the State of New York as a result of the passage of the state budget. In raw numbers the state is giving $6,807,450 to WACS. So, on top of this 3 percent increase in state aid, the BOE wants to bill Westfield taxpayers another $834,384, and raise their taxes another 2 percent.

This proposed school budget approved by the BOE should set off alarm bells in every home in Westfield. For those who live in the Village of Westfield who pay taxes to three different entities, and for those who own multiple parcels in Westfield, this budget should be significant cause for concern. If this budget is approved each taxpayer in the district will have an additional 2 percent levied on each piece of property they own. Is this going to be the new normal for the taxpayers who live in Westfield? Does the BOE intend to raise their operating budget nearly one million dollars every year moving forward and raise your taxes 2 percent? If that is their strategy that means we would see a nearly 10 percent raise in our taxes to support a budget increase of nearly $4.2 million dollars in five years. Ask yourself if your family can afford a 10 percent raise in school taxes over a five-year period?

I have watched Westfield make significant progress in the last few years despite tough economic conditions. This is largely due to the fiscal efforts of Town Supervisor Martha Bills, Mayor Mike Vandevelde, and the entire Town of Westfield Board and the Village of Westfield Board of Trustees. I have watched both boards struggle and agonize over expenditures because they know every dollar they approve will be paid in taxes not only by them, but also by their constituents.

The greatest threat to the long-term viability of Westfield is a declining population. No place has this threat been more prevalent over the past two decades than at the Westfield Academy and Central School. WACS is a critical component to this community, much like our hospital, and the WACS BOE needs to resist taking any action which either drives people out of Westfield or keeps them from buying a home here. Raising school taxes 2 percent while increasing your budget $834,384 in one-year will not help our real estate agents sell homes (particularly in the village), nor will it help our elected officials attract new businesses.

I want nothing more than to see our school succeed. There is positive movement in Westfield as we have recently seen new businesses preparing to open, and the recent renovation and expansion of the emergency department at Westfield Memorial Hospital to better serve all of Chautauqua County. There are other projects in the pipeline which could have a significant positive fiscal and quality of life impact on Westfield. However, along with all the good that is occurring there are concerns about another important component of Westfield; our TOPS grocery store. TOPS has declared bankruptcy and last week announced they intend to close underperforming stores during their restructuring process. What Westfield does not need thrown into the mix of uncertainty at this time are tax increases at the upper end of the state tax cap and million-dollar budget increases. We simply cannot afford to chase more people or businesses away from our town. It would be so nice to see future graduates of WACS fill job opportunities in Westfield rather than move away because they can’t afford the school tax bill.

If we are smart and forward-thinking we can grow our tax base, which will ultimately support better services. The BOE and WACS school staff must not operate within a silo, but instead be more cognizant of their surroundings and the limitations that currently exist in Westfield. Before you approve another million-dollar budget increase show the community your due diligence in trying to cut costs, as well as growing our school population. For example, can student transportation be contracted out to the private sector for a cost savings? Does a small rural school like WACS need two principals? Would having one principal and an assistant principal who has a lower salary than a principal save money? With two other struggling school districts on each side of us (Brocton and Ripley), is it time to try to consolidate these small rural schools in some fashion with WACS in order to reap the financial benefits that come with school consolidation?

WACS will hold a public hearing on the proposed 2018-2019 budget on Monday, May 7 at 6:00 p.m. in the Large Group Instruction Room of the school. This is your opportunity to come and ask specific questions of your elected officials on the BOE, as well as school administrators what they intend to spend the $834,384 on should the voters approve this budget.

The school budget vote and BOE Elections will be held on Tuesday, May 15 between the hours of 2 and 8 p.m. at WACS. Regardless of how you intend to vote on the budget, when you get done reading this letter mark that date on your calendar and cast your vote.

Should a 2 percent tax increase and an $834,284 one-year budget increase be too much for you to cast a “yes” vote on May 15, do not be worried about the school shutting down because the budget was not approved by the voters. There will be a contingency budget in place of $16.4 million should the budget vote not pass. WACS will survive just fine with this amount of money. There are many towns and small countries around the world that would love $16.4 million dollars for their one-year budget.

Tom Tarpley is a Westfield resident.