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More Questions On The School Budget

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Here is a transcript from the first half of the Dec. 1 Westford School Committee meeting. For highlights from the meeting, click here.

7:30 p.m. – The School Committee began the meeting with the Pledge of Allegiance. There were no comments for public forum.

The board went into Executive Session.

7:57 p.m. – The Committee returned. There were no recognitions, and there were brief updates from Superintendent Bill Olsen, and Westford Academy student representatives Will O’Neal and Julie Becker.

8:02 p.m. – The agenda then went to questions on the FY’ 16 school budget.

Olsen said that other town officials have seen the preliminary budget and now the schools are in a holding pattern.

The budget will be looked at over the next ten weeks and Olsen asked if there are any “macro” questions the Committee has for Olsen to look at during the budget process.

School Committee member Margaret Murray asked for answers to the questions posed at the last meeting when there was limited time to ask questions and also asked about metrics relating to time spent outside the classroom with special needs students.

School Committee member David Keele asked if next year will have the largest student population in Westford Academy history.

Olsen said that the next two years will have the largest populations.

Keele said that this was important and also noted it was important to note the declining student population after that bubble and asked about how staffing issues will be dealt with once student populations begin to decline in several years.

Keele said that the decline isn’t rapid, but it’s coming and asked if Olsen is prepared for when continuing declines in the student population will make staff increases a challenge and if this will be addressed through shifting personnel or not replacing retiring staff members.

Olsen said that this has been happening in lower grade levels for several years and teachers are moved in terms of seniority and licensure, or what grades they are eligible to teach.

Olsen said that this was one of the better years in terms of averaging a consistent class size (approximately 22 students).

In a few years, high school teachers may be dropping down to teach middle school classes.

Keele was astonished that some high school teachers are unable to teach middle school.

Olsen said that Tony Martinez asked at Town Meeting in the past why more people haven’t been reduced at the Elementary School levels, and he said that current year class sizes and class size projections for upcoming years are taken into account.

He said that it’s better to keep staff members rather than try to replace those laid off workers.

8:12 p.m. – Keele’s next question was regarding the new exclusionary law and how that will impact the budget since there may be no staff members needed or up to two or three staff members needed.

Olsen called it a “shot in the dark” since some years there are expulsions and suspensions and some years there are not, and in years where there are no expulsions or suspensions, the money can be returned to the town.

Keele said that there are many quality guidance counselors in the building and asked if any issues could be addressed through the guidance department.

Olsen said that the law addresses instruction of these students, who may be a danger to other students and staff, and that tuition for out placement may be needed.

School Committee member Erika Kohl said she has not heard of any students expelled due to safety risks and asked if there had been any.

Olsen said that he had expelled students due to selling controlled substances on school grounds, but never any students for weapon possession on site. And the last expulsion of that kind occurred eight years ago.

Kohl said that her concern was that money could be spent better elsewhere and students could be returned to classrooms with penalties such as drug counseling rather than be sent into programs comparable to explusion.

Terrance Ryan
Terrance Ryan

Kohl said she had qualms about funding this issue due to that point.

Olsen said that he also had qualms, and then noted the paperwork related to the new law.

He then said if this is not funded, it becomes a risk and that must be funded through other means if it becomes required.

School Committee member Angela Harkness asked if this funding could be combined with funding to help students who were removed from class for non-disciplinary reasons.

Olsen said that he had talked with Westford Academy principal Jim Antonelli and said that may be a possibility.

Harkness and Olsen continued on the topic with Olsen saying that the staff member helping students return to Westford Academy could also have other duties.

8:21 p.m. – Murray said she had seen statistics from recent years regarding out-of-school suspensions and there were approximately 25 students suspended per year but the number of days lost due to suspension were not immediately available although they were available elsewhere.

She said that information was needed.

School Committee member Terence Ryan noted that the money allocated for the out-of-school teacher didn’t have to be used and asked if they could be hired quickly.

Olsen said that the teacher would need to be licensed and it’s unclear what procedures would be used on hiring a new teacher or transferring an existing teacher.

Keele called it “new territory” and Kohl worried about it being too vague of a mandate.

Olsen said that it should be seen as generic funding rather than a staffing request.

Acting School Committee chairman Arthur Benoit said that the issue should be seen as comparable to the Bridge program instituted recently for students returning from concussions.

8:26 p.m. – Kohl then asked for clarification over what was trying to be achieved with the $30,000 for technology enhancement plan and how this decision was reached.

Kohl then talked about portions of the plan and noted there is no reason in it to go mobile and it was unclear what going mobile would give in terms of a return on investment.

She asked what the goals would be for going mobile.

Olsen asked Kohl to e-mail him with further details.

Benoit asked for additional information regarding budget cuts at the state level and across the town and how that will impact Town Manager Jodi Ross’ decisions on the school budget.

He noted that the public should be kept appraised of what is going on with that and State Representative Jim Arciero and State Senator Eileen Donaghue should be brought in to talk about these cuts.

Murray then noted recent 9c cuts and said she would like to hear input from Arciero and Donoghue

Benoit said he had read about problems in Chelmsford and said the schools need to be proactive.

Murray then spoke against mid-year cuts that schools could not absorb.

Olsen said there had been a lot of kickback against local aid cuts in the legislature.

Benoit then talked about special education costs spiraling and these cuts making things worse.

Olsen then called cuts as new unfunded mandates, although noted that local taxes are helping the budget of the town.