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Town Manager Jodi Ross is puzzled by the spate of recent commentaries asking officials to adequately fund the school budget, noting she hasn’t presented a budget yet.
“I will be presenting the budget on Dec. 17,” she said.
Until then, there’s probably no fight to be had.
But telling that to Mike Colson, president of the Westford Education Association, wouldn’t make a difference. He’s concerned that the funding needed to fuel the School Department in fiscal 2021 will not be enough to avoid cuts.
In a letter to the editor published on Nov. 13, Colson said, “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.”
Colson did not specify from where his information came.
According to Colson, the School Department usually receives an annual increase of about 2.5 percent — a number not confirmed by Town Hall officials.
In May 2017, voters approved a permanent tax hike — known as an override of Proposition 2 ½ — of $1.6 million to boost teachers’ salaries by 6 percent over three years. Together with the additional funds of $350K, the School Department’s budget increase for fiscal 2020 was 2.81 percent. Without the embedded funds the total increase was 1.9 percent
Proposition 2 ½ is a state law that limits annual property tax increases by 2.5 percent plus new growth.
“Those numbers appear to support the assertion…that the town has simply reduced its contribution to the schools by a dollar amount roughly equal to that of the override each year,” said Colson.
But Finance Director Dan O’Donnell said the work to finalize the budget is ongoing.
“We are diligently working on this right now,” he said. “We’re waiting to hear from our department heads to make sure this is a viable budget.”
Several years ago, the town benefited from increased tax revenues from the retail development at Boston and Littleton Roads known as Cornerstone Square. More recently the town also benefited from the construction of the Hanover Westford Valley rental units on Littleton Road. But 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’s financial planning.
The fiscal 2021 budget is yet to be presented. The current fiscal 2020 municipal budget 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.
For the current fiscal year the tax levy totals $81,881,657 after deducting for the Proposition 2 ½ increase, new growth at $1 million, and debt exclusions of $3,053,288.
The Finance Committee’s budget meetings begin Thursday Jan. 9 at 7 p.m. at Town Hall and will continue every Thursday through the end of January.