LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Potential Cuts to School Budget will Bring Years of Ramifications; Trend Must Be Reversed

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I am the president of the Westford Education Association.

I am also the son of two Connecticut public school educators, the parent of two elementary school age daughters, and a career history teacher. I have relished the privilege of teaching history at Westford Academy for the past 16 years, during which I have taught more than 2,500 students in my classes.

Westford residents’ dedication to education was highlighted in spring 2017 when they voted in support of a Proposition 2 ½ override specifically devoted to raising teacher salaries to competitive levels for fiscal 2019. Proposition 2 ½ is a state law that limits annual property tax increases to 2.5 percent plus new growth.

Two years after voters approved the override, the school system finds itself ensnared in a quagmire of significant annual budget deficits.

At the November 19, 2018, School Committee meeting, Superintendent Bill Olsen noted voters had approved a $1.6 million permanent tax increase — otherwise known as an override — in May 2017.  The money was earmarked to bring teacher salaries up to market rate. Town Manager Jodi Ross proposed a 2.5 percent fiscal 2019 budget increase for the schools but that included the .9 percent set aside for salary increases. This prompted Olsen to question whether voters had intended the override funds to be included in the proposed annual budget. [Editor’s note: This comment is not verbatim. To hear the precise comment by Olsen click on this link and fast forward to 1 hour and 5 minutes.]

Last fiscal year the town’s school allocation, which for the second year in a row was drastically below the budget put forward by the superintendent and School Committee, resulting in the complete elimination of our pre-first program, the loss of  our elementary school digital learning specialists, our first and second grade teaching assistants, as well as cuts to positions at the Middle Schools and at Westford Academy. In the previous nine years the school system had never received less than a 2.5 percent budget increase (having received increases that were between 3 and 4 percent most of those years) and yet the last two years (excluding the override funds) the schools have received budgets with 1.7 percent and 1.6 percent increases. That this has taken place directly after the override was passed to support the schools is a curious coincidence at best.

Town Manager Jodi Ross has stated publicly there has been no duplicity on the part of her office by including the override contributions within the school budget.  However, I personally find the significantly reduced contributions from the town to the schools in the years directly following that override to paint a different picture.  Those numbers appear to support the assertion made by Superintendent Olsen last year that the town has simply reduced its contribution to the schools by a dollar amount roughly equal to that of the override each year.

Last spring I sat in stunned silence as Select Board Chair Mark Kost boasted at Annual Town Meeting that the lean school budget resulting in the loss of staff working directly with our youngest learners were to be viewed as “efficiency” measures; a claim that I take as a personal insult. [Editor’s Note: This is not a verbatim quote. To hear precisely what Mark Kost said at the March 2019 Annual Town Meeting click on this link and fast forward to 1 hour and 40 minutes.]  I believe that such a statement is also insulting to Bill Olsen, the Westford School Committee, the staff and students who walk into our schools each day, parents, and the community of Westford at large. Unfortunately, The ramifications of those cuts will be felt for years to come. And I fear this is just the start.

Although it is early, and no initial budget numbers have been made public yet, I am told that from a budgetary perspective it’s going to be “more of the same” if not “worse” for the Westford public schools next year. This trend must be reversed. — Mike Colson, Westford Academy History Teacher, WEA President