Teachers Rally on town Common to Protest Potential Budget Cuts for Schools

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Worried that the town manager’s preliminary budget for the School Department will require cuts, the teachers rallied in protest on the common on Nov. 23 and will return tomorrow (Nov. 26) at 3 p.m.

Led by Mike Colson, president of the Westford Education Association, the teachers are making their position known to Town Manager Jodi Ross, whose fiscal 2021 preliminary budget will be presented at tomorrow’s (Nov. 26) Select Board meeting, and formally presented on Dec. 17.

Teachers rally, Nov. 23, 2019. COURTESY PHOTO

In a letter to the editor, Select Board Chair Elizabeth Almeida noted the magnitude of Ross’s responsibilities. “The Select Board understands our community values education,” she said. “We understand our community also values Public Safety, Library, Senior Center, Highway, Engineering, Conservation, Water, Board of Health, Parks, Grounds and Cemetery, Building & Permitting office, Human Resources, Assessor, Treasurer/Tax Collector, Facilities, Veterans, Clerk, and IT departments. We strive for a budget that expresses these values.”

In addition to budgeting for at least 16 departments, Ross also responds to directives from the five-member select board. According to Ross, the board has directed her  to add one police officer and three more firefighters/paramedics for the next fiscal year’s budget.

“This town has grown exponentially,” she said, “so it’s a strain on town services…I think we have the best police and fire departments in the state.”

The fiscal 2020 municipal budget, ending on June 30, totaled $121,613,658, an increase of 3.2 percent from the previous fiscal year. The School Department’s fiscal 2020 budget is $59,626,571 – roughly half of the total municipal budget. The ongoing budget planning is for fiscal 2021, beginning July 1.

Carrying signs that said,“Proud Westford Teachers, since 1792,” the educators lined the edges of the common in gentle protest on Nov. 23.

Teachers rally in the town Common as they wait to hear the Town Manager’s preliminary budget. COURTESY PHOTO

They were there to request adequate funding for education programs and specialists. In 2017 voters approved a $1.6 million permanent tax hike that would be used to boost teachers salaries by 6 percent for each of three years beginning in fiscal 2020.

Together with the additional funds of $350K per year for the next three years, the School Department’s budget increase for fiscal 2020 was 2.81 percent. Without the embedded funds the total increase was 1.9 percent.

Colson voiced concern that town officials have reduced the contribution to the schools by a dollar amount somewhat equal to that of the tax hike each year.

Young students join the rally on Nov. 23. COURTESY PHOTO

“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, resulted 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,” Colson said in a letter to the editor. [Note: WestfordCAT has not confirmed these cuts.]

Ross will present a preliminary fiscal 2021 budget message at 8:05 p.m. at the Nov. 26 Select Board’s meeting inside Town Hall. [The entire meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. and will be available on demand at westfordcat.org.]

“What’s the hardest part?” Ross said in response to a reporter’s question. “The limited resources. Every department has needs that exceed the appropriation.”

The teachers will rally again tomorrow in the Common from 3 to 3:45 p.m.