Schools May Be Asked To Help With Town Revenue Shortfall

Arthur Benoit was named as the new School Committee chairman on Monday following two delays on a vote. His first agenda item as chairman: hearing that Westford’s schools may need to provide the town an additional $300,000 from this year’s fiscal budget.

Superintendent Bill Olsen informed the board that Town Manager Jodi Ross believes $600,000 will be needed in unexpended funds from all town departments to overcome shortcomings in Fiscal Year 2016 revenue projections.

With the School Department taking up approximately half of the town’s budget, that would likely mean around half of the money, or $300,000, would come from the School Department budget.

During Fiscal Years 13-15, the schools “closed out” or returned an average of $293,356 to the town’s general fund.

These close outs and some potential adjustments in the current fiscal year may be needed to meet that $300,000 goal.

David Keele on Aug. 31, 2015

David Keele on Aug. 31, 2015

Olsen’s announcement was termed as a preliminary notice, with additional information likely being available by the next meeting, although some School Committee members were unsure if the figure would still be in place over the next several weeks.

School Committee Member David Keele was concerned that the projections were incorrect and also asked why the shortfall couldn’t be fully rectified from the average close out returns to the general fund or from free cash money set aside within the budget.

“I don’t see a crisis on the part of the schools,” he said.

Olsen replied that free cash amounts allow the town greater fiscal stability in the long run, also noting that his department has aimed to keep a level and predictable budget rather than large increases and cuts each fiscal year.

After additional discussion, it was indicated any proposal cuts beyond the expectations this upcoming fiscal year would likely lead to fewer expected proposal cuts the following fiscal year.

Olsen indicated to board that there would not be any cuts in current programs or personnel impacting the quality of the school system.

School Committee Member Erika Kohl voiced concerns over a lack of data regarding technology replacement budgets, requesting additional information that she indicated had not been given over the past several months.

In response, School Committee Member Tom Clay asked whether it was within the School Committee’s purview to address the item or leave it to educational professionals, although Kohl and others indicated that the financial and value impacts of these technology budgets are an important part of the board’s duties.

Olsen told Kohl and other members of the board that information would come as often as possible and promised transparency, although he also indicated that he would not allow “paralysis by overanalysis,” and that a quarterly update would likely not be feasible.

The Board is expected to meet again on Sept. 14 at 7 p.m.