Parents Line the Halls as Superintendent Announces Cuts for Schools

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EDITOR’S NOTE: So many residents sought to watch the live stream of the Dec. 11 School Committee meeting that they caused the WestfordCAT hard drive to crash. For those who missed it, find it on demand at westfordcat.org

Faced with a $61,057,609 preliminary budget for fiscal 2021, Superintendent Bill Olsen led a four-hour meeting on Dec. 11, while about 250 residents filled the main meeting room, the large overflow area, and the hallway leading to the exit door.

The parents were there to demand more money and oppose service cuts to the schools.

Olsen’s budget is recommended by Town Manager Jodi Ross who has tightened the belt this fiscal year for all departments. Ross’s budgetary decisions are colored by Proposition 2 1/2 , a state law that limits property tax increases to 2.5 percent plus new growth.

According to the Fire Department 250 people attended the Dec. 11 School Committee meeting. COURTESY PHOTO

Revenue limitations

The Proposition 2 ½ increase for fiscal 2021 will be $1.97 million. New growth is projected to be $1.2 million in fiscal 2021, seemingly hefty sums. But, according to an analysis conducted by Finance Director Dan O’Donnell, expenses such as employee benefits and debt service will deplete the funds.

Faced with a tight budget and declining student enrollment, Olsen has challenges even with a 2.48 percent increase over the fiscal 2020 budget, ending June 30.

“Very importantly in our budget cycle process we need to scale our staffing and our expenses to what has been a declining enrollment over the last nine or 10 years,” Olsen said.

Service cuts

The shrinking enrollment paired with large expenses are leading to unwanted consequences.

Eleven teaching positions will be reduced:

  • 6 elementary classroom teachers
  • 1 elementary Physical Education/wellness teacher
  • an elementary music teacher
  • 2 middle school teachers at Blanchard Middle School
  • 1 middle school foreign language teacher
  • Part-time high school English teacher
  • Part-time high school PE teacher
  • Reduced per pupil supplies

Seven teachers are expected to retire next year, said Olsen.

“We will continue to transition Digital Learning Specialist functionality to the school staff,” Olsen stated. “The two Digital Learning Specialists in the middle schools will retire next year and the positions will not be filled. One of the two Digital Learning Specialists at Westford Academy will be reduced.”

School fees

Some fee increases are proposed: School bus rides will cost $325 per year as compared to $275 this fiscal year. The family cap will rise to $850 from $750. Seniors who drive will pay $200 to park on school grounds. That’s up from $50 per year. The activity fee for grades 6 through 8 will be $80 versus the fiscal 2020 amount of $60.

The Grades 3 through 5 Instrumental Music program will cost $290 per year, up from $260. Students who arrive at school early will pay $500 per year. That’s double the amount for fiscal 2020. The athletic fee at Westford Academy will jump from $275 to $325. The athletic fee at the Middle Schools will increase to $275 this next fiscal year as compared to $240.

Select Board Chair

Select Board Chair Elizabeth Almeida ended the protracted meeting by noting that some of the select board members have children in the schools, too.

“The town manager has put out a budget that she thinks will serve the town,” Almeida said.

“If we as a community are not happy with this, we have two options.”

Almeida said voters could attend the Dec. 17 selectmen’s meeting to voice concerns, or voters could seek a permanent tax increase over the limitations of Proposition 2 ½ .

The School Committee members took no action on Dec. 11, but will meet again on Monday at 7 p.m., Dec. 16 in the Blanchard Middle School, 14 West St.

UPDATE — The phrase “budget cuts” was changed to “service cuts” because, in actuality, the school department’s budget is increasing from the previous fiscal year.  The last sentence was clarified from the original which implied voters could change the town manager’s budget at the Dec. 17 select board’s meeting. Voters can voice concerns and opinions at that meeting.

UPDATE — A reader of this article said that, in addition to parents, many students and alumni attended the meeting.

UPDATE — The proposed school budget increase from fiscal 2020 to fiscal 2021, beginning July 1, is 2.48 percent.