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An hour into the protracted School Committee meeting on Jan. 22, parent Todd Shestok engaged in an interaction with the members that illustrated the frustration among the decision-makers, the teachers and specialists, and the parents.
The issue is the town manager’s recommended fiscal 2021 School Department budget of $61,057,609 — a 2.48 percent increase over the fiscal 2020 budget, ending June 30, but not enough of an increase to cover growing expenses.
“The answer to all of this is one word, and it’s ‘money,’” Shestok said. “What has gone on here tonight from all these teachers are a result of last year’s cuts.”
The School Committee members are on the hot seat with some parents for not fighting harder to secure additional funds from Town Manager Jodi Ross who recommends the annual budgets of the town departments.
“The School Department, in terms of revenue generation, is the rainmaker in this town,” Shestok said. “Start acting like it.”
Chair Avery Adam unsuccessfully attempted to shut him down by reading a prepared statement touting the importance of following a budgetary process.
“Only after we’ve heard from everyone can we make decisions…Social media is not the venue we choose to discuss the issue,” she said, referring to the many online discussions taking place as a list of recommended service cuts is released by Superintendent Everett V. Olsen.
The committee is also under fire for not showing more emotion over the pending service cuts, but member Gloria Miller said any emotional reaction to the funding allotment would make no difference in the outcome.
“All of that release of emotion will get us no where,” said Miller.
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.
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.
Olsen is also faced with a declining enrollment that warrants further cuts to services and a load of school administrative and professional salaries totaling about $41M.
Olsen is proposing to slice the following for a savings of $649K :
- 6 elementary classroom teachers.
- 1 elementary Physical Education/Wellness teacher.
- 0.4 elementary music teacher.
- 2 middle school teachers (1 mini team) at Blanchard.
- 1 middle school world language teacher.
- 0.6 high school English teacher.
- 0.6 high school Physical Education teacher.
To save another $100K, Olsen would do the following:
- Move the remaining preschool classes to K-2 schools– reduce one preschool nurse and stipends.
- He would eliminate the middle school facilities assistant and shift those responsibilities to the Facilities Department.
- Olsen is recommending that three Elementary Assistant Principal positions and three Elementary Student Support Leader positions be combined with six Elementary Assistant Principal/Student Support Leader positions.
- Finally, Olsen would reconfigure the Director of Student Information to Data Specialist/Registrar.
Adjustments to Services and Programs
- To save another $227K Olsen would make some sort of unspecified curriculum adjustments.
- He would reduce a full-time maintenance staff worker to part-time
- Olsen will not replace two middle school Digital Learning Specialists who are retiring; and he will do away with one Digital Learning Specialist at Westford Academy.
The combined total of all the above changes would save the School Department almost $1million.
Last Year’s Cuts
This is the second consecutive year of service cuts at the schools — a reality that seemingly riled Shestok. Olsen’s proposed cuts for fiscal 2019 included two full-time middle school teachers; six full-time general education teaching assistants for grades one and two; and two full-time pre-first teachers. A full-time digital learning specialist was to be replaced with a full-time curriculum coordinator and a full-time technician. Finally, a full-time high school teacher would be let go.
Three full-time general education teachers and a full-time special education teacher would not be hired under Olsen’s planned cuts. Two full-time pre-first teachers would be let go, saving the department $108K. The Living Lab would be eliminated, to save $22K.
A student activity fee at Westford Academy would jump from $60 to $100.
It’s unclear how many of these cuts were implemented in fiscal 2019.
A Town for All
Despite overtures from members Miller and Megan Eckroth, Shestok was unmoved.
“Our town is not only parents of school children,” said Eckroth, underscoring that not everyone in town can afford to pay the rising costs of running a School Department.
“I hope that my children graduate and I hope that I live in my house for 30 years and don’t have a mortgage, Eckroth said. “And I hope that someday I’m like my neighbor who has lived here for 34 years and said to me the other day…I wish I could no longer pay for the schools…We are one community. We have all kinds of people in town.”
Shestok was not swayed.
“That was a sales pitch for less money for the School Department and you’re on the School Committee. This is day one of the slippery slope,” Shestok said.
UPDATE — The first sentence was revised on Jan. 24 to more accurately reflect the sentiments of the parties.
A sub head was changed on Jan. 25.
A statement that the town manager controls the purse strings” was changed on Jan. 30 to say the town manager recommends budgets for her departments.
A quote was attributed and a paragraph was repositioned on Feb. 2