District budget cuts cause teacher layoffs and reassignments

On April 5, 24 people district-wide were informed that their current positions were “abolished as a result of a reduction in force” for the 2022-2023 school year. This included 8 secretaries, 7 elementary level teachers, 6 intermediate school teachers, 2 WHS teachers and 1 district theater production manager. Some of the faculty members were informed that they would be reassigned to new positions within the district.

This decision had been heavily discussed by BOE and building administrators since September. “For months, our administration worked tirelessly to explore the options to minimize the impact on students that were consistent with district priorities,” said District Superintendent Dr. Raymond Gonzalez.

In the preliminary budget for the 2022-2023 school year, the district was almost $6 million over its allotted amount. The district attempted to remedy this budget crisis by changing the way they paid for lunch duty, deferring technology purchases and by eliminating some bus routes. These remedies, among others, helped bring the over-budget amount to $2.3 million dollars.

Raising taxes for residents further was not an option because of the state-mandated two percent tax levy cap. However, there will be a one percent tax rate increase, resulting in an average of about $103 per household more for school taxes next year.

Westfield is one of the wealthiest districts in New Jersey and also one of the most cost-efficient regarding the amount of money spent on pupils, spending about $1,760 per pupil less than the state average.

Increases in the costs of student transportation and health insurance for district employees were the main factors in the budget shortfall. About 80 percent of the district budget goes to staff salaries and health benefits. This made it challenging to cut $2.3 million, even after receiving $6,583,617 in state aid, and stay under budget without cutting staff.

“A number of factors are considered in situations involving reductions in staff that are governed by law and employment contracts which include variables such as tenure, seniority and bumping rights,” said Gonzalez. “I can say that reductions were made in every effort to avoid having to eliminate any courses, programs or stipends for music, theater, athletics or extracurricular offerings.”

In response to these reductions, the Westfield community has come together to protest staff changes in the Arts Department. Many students communicated their frustration about the decision at a meeting with Dr. Gonzalez after school on April 19.

Junior Ryan Karlin is the stage manager for WHS theater and has helped spearhead the community protests. “We have a history of fantastic theater at WHS and I will say this definitively, that [the] level of production will go down without the district production manager,” he said. “I don’t think the district wants that to happen. They are making the completely wrong decision.”

A visual and performing arts staff member whose position was eliminated due to the reduction in force, echoed Karlin’s remarks. They said, “Limiting staff in areas of the arts directly limits a student’s access to expertise and opportunities. That said, I know our students are resourceful and will do the best they can despite the circumstances.”

Although the district emphasized that no extracurriculars were actually cut, many in the theater community claim the removal of staff and advisors will have a lasting impact.

Karlin emphasized that the tradition of excellence in the district includes not only challenging academics, but also highlights the importance of extracurriculars like the arts and athletics. “We are a school; it’s obviously important to make sure the academics are up to par. At WHS, specifically, we hold ourselves to a high standard of academics, but I think that we also hold ourselves to a very high standard of arts.”

During the five-hour long BOE meeting on Tuesday, students, staff and community members, wearing blue to show solidarity with the affected faculty members, shared their grievances about the budget cuts.

The board voted 8 to 1 to approve the finance agenda that included next school year’s budget, and voted 7 to 2 to approve the personnel agenda that included the reduction in force.