Jodi Ross, Westford Town Manager

Budget Woes Hit Home for School Committee; (VIDEO INCLUDED)

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From left, Megan A. Eckroth and Alicia D. Mallon listen to Gloria K. Miller as School Committee candidates this spring. All three now sit on the School Committee. FILE PHOTO BY JOYCE PELLINO CRANE

From left, Megan A. Eckroth, Alicia D. Mallon, and Gloria K. Miller as School Committee candidates last spring. All three now sit on the School Committee. FILE PHOTO BY JOYCE PELLINO CRANE

Faced with lower projected revenues in coming months, Town Manager Jodi Ross is estimating only a 1.5 percent increase for the School Department’s fiscal 2019 budget.

As compared to the current fiscal year’s budget of $56 million, which rose 2.5 percent over the previous year, the coming fiscal year’s allotment is recommended at $57.9 million.

The fiscal reality raised questions among School Committee members who worked tirelessly last spring to garner enough votes to pass a $1.6 million override of Proposition 2 ½.  The money is earmarked to boost teachers salaries to make them commensurate with comparable communities. (Scroll past the video to continue reading.)

The property tax hike will be divided over three years for a budgetary  increase of $530,000 per year.

With the override allotment, the School Department will receive a 2.43 percent increase for the year that begins July 1.

School Committee member Megan Eckroth raised the first question to Ross who made a budget presentation on Dec. 4.

“So that number represents a 2.43 increase, which is part general fund and part what came out of the override?” Eckroth said. “So my understanding as a voter…is I thought that was a separate bucket.”

Eckroth said she believed the override amount would not be part of the school budget’s general fund.

“So why is that counting as a large portion of the increase from the town general fund increase,” she said.

Ross said the override funds are part of the School Department’s budget.

“That is part of your budget whether it came from the override or some other method,” she said.

But Eckroth was not satisfied.

“My understanding is that we voted as a town to bring the teachers salaries to a certain level to be in line with other towns and that that was specifically earmarked for that purpose, and so even though it was part of the budget it looks a little bit on the monetary side like we’re now being penalized for other things,” she said.

To which Ross said, “no one is penalizing you…there’s only so much extra revenue that comes in every year…I oversee the health insurance for the town. With those numbers we have to allocate to health insurance that’s a huge chunk out of the budget right off the top.”

But School Committee member Alicia Mallon also expressed concerns.

“…I guarantee you when we go to Town Meeting you’re going to have a room full of people who are going to say ‘why did we pass that override if the school budget is then this percent…and I’m not saying they’re right. I’m saying that’s going to be a question,” Mallon said.

Ross was unmoved.

“Obviously Town Meeting has a choice of where they want to reduce the budget,” Ross said. “I go line item by line item and only put forth what is truly required to run the town. And if the voters decide they want to close the library or they want to not hire new firefighters or police, or they want to close the Recreation Department, they have the choice to do that.”