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Alluding to mounting confusion in the school community, Superintendent Everett V. Olsen, on Dec. 18, sought to clarify concerns regarding the School Department’s fiscal 2019 budget.
A belt tightening year for Westford town departments is prompting Town Manager Jodi Ross to reduce the School Department’s recommended increase for fiscal 2019 to 1.5 percent, prompting Olsen to propose budget cuts of $1.3 million.
As compared to the current fiscal year’s School Department 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, which includes an infusion from a recently approved tax increase. The budgeted amount for the School Department represents 48.26 percent of all town expenditures.
In addition, this May voters approved a $1.6 million override of Proposition 2 ½ , a state law that limits annual property tax increases to 2.5 percent plus new growth. The money is to be apportioned evenly over three years at $530,000 per year.
“There’s an increasing amount of conversation that the teachers salary issue is causing cuts in the School Department budget and the answer is no,” said Olsen. “The town has appropriated that amount that is necessary to bring the teachers salaries up to the level that we presented to the public as needed to be.” [Scroll past the video to continue reading.]
The funds are set aside and will be used to boost the teachers salaries by approximately 6 percent annually to make them commensurate with the salaries of teachers in comparable communities.
Olsen differentiated the funds held in the School Department’s general fund from those held separately to cover the salary boost.
“The 1.5 (percent) increase is on the general operating budget. That amount of revenue that was generated by the override is in excess of the 1.5 percent,” he said. “And is absolutely not commingled with any other funds for any other general expenditure purposes. It’s specifically devoted for those teachers salaries. Period.”
But the teachers have not seen their raise nor their regular annual salary increases because the School Committee and the teachers union got stuck haggling over a language issue in the 2017-2020 contract. The most recent three-year contract expired on Aug. 31. The teachers filed an unfair labor practice complaint in October regarding their regular annual increases. The matter will go to arbitration at the state Department of Labor Relations.
On the chopping block are several existing and new personnel positions at the schools, including the creation of a facility director as well as a data analyst at an annual cost of $122K.
Ross is recommending a 2.46 percent increase for the municipality’s fiscal 2019 operating budget of $120 million, as compared to $117.5 million in fiscal 2018, ending June 30.
Over the past five years, the town benefited from increased tax revenues from the development of the retail development at Boston and Littleton Roads known as Cornerstone Square. The town also benefited from the construction of Princeton Properties’s 200 residential rental units on Littleton Road. But in recent years, new growth has slowed, said Ross. That along with the uncertainty of an increase in state aid and the burgeoning staffing needs of the Police and Fire Departments as the town’s population swells, has challenged Ross in planning for the coming fiscal year.
However, none of the challenges have any bearing on the override funds, Olsen said.
“It’s not a cashbox for the School Department to use in any way, shape or form…” he said.
UPDATE – The figure for total proposed cuts is $1.3 million. Links to documents outlining the cuts were added. A third link to “Westford Teachers Contract in Logjam” was also added.