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Westford Selectmen OK Override Request for Annual Town Meeting; Tax Hike Would Close Teachers Salary Gap

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Voters may decide this spring whether to raise taxes to boost teacher salaries.

Selectmen voted 4 to 1, Jan. 10, to put a placeholder on the annual Town Meeting warrant seeking a permanent property tax hike to fund higher teacher salaries.

The proposed override of Proposition 2 ½ would close what School Committee members call a 6.23 percent gap between Westford teacher salaries as compared to the salaries of teachers in comparable communities. The comparison is referred to as a “market basket” of towns.

Surrounded by about 30 educators and parents in the Town Hall meeting room, School Committee member Tom Clay and Superintendent Bill Olsen presented their argument. Selectmen Don Siriani cast the sole dissenting vote.

The placeholder is temporary said Selectmen Chairman Andrea Peraner-Sweet, allowing the board to meet the Jan. 24 deadline for the warrant closing but giving the board members time to withdraw it by Feb. 28 if they opt not to support the article. Town Meeting takes place on March 25.

“We at least need to make some decisions as to whether we’re going to have a placeholder and then move forward,” said Peraner-Sweet.

The timeline would also give the board members the leeway to place the request on the ballot for the town-wide election by the March 28 deadline. The election takes place on May 2.

Clay and the other School Committee members have publicly said they are unanimously in favor of asking voters to approve a permanent tax hike of $340.42 per average household per year. The members are seeking to raise tax revenues by $2 million in fiscal 2018, which begins July 1. In fiscal 2019 and fiscal 2020, they are proposing increases of $500,000 each for a total increase of $3 million.

The benchmark school districts are Franklin, Hingham, Hopkinton, Nashoba Regional, Needham, Sharon, Shrewsbury, Wachusett, Wellesley, and Winchester. Data considered include total enrollment in each school, scores on assessment tests known as MCAS, and the median student growth percentile garnered from those tests. The data comes from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Clay said.

The current three-year teachers contract ends on Aug. 31. With bargaining sessions on the horizon memories of a rancorous negotiation period from several years ago are being recalled.

“There are two people in this room Kelly (Ross) and I who are truly the only two victims who survived the last two school negotiating sessions,” said School Committee member David Keele who is completing his third and final term. Keele announced at the meeting he will not run for re-election.

From 2010 to 2012, as the Great Recession impacted town budgets across the region, the School Committee and the Westford Education Association bitterly fought over cost of living increases. As negotiations dragged on over 18 months, the union filed an unfair labor practice grievance with the state Division of Labor Relations in April 2012. Ultimately, the teachers agreed to forego an increase in 2011-2012 and 2012-2013, and accepted a 1 percent cost of living increase for 2013-2014. But those years when the teachers received no increase, widened the teachers’ earning gap, noted Clay.

“A gap began to accentuate during that contract,” he said.

While the 2014-2017 contract gave the teachers reasonable increases for each of the three years, it did not make up for the years when they went without and the current economic climate will not provide for the type of increase that can close the earnings gap, Clay said.

“We would prefer to stay within the normal budgeting process, but if we don’t have any tools to make progress, we feel we have to go to an override,” he said.

Proposition 2 ½ is a state law that limits annual property tax increases to 2.5 percent, plus new growth. An override of the law is a permanent property tax hike.

Starting salaries for Westford teachers are $42,611, according to a School Committee document, as compared to the earnings of a Wellesley first year teacher of $47,541. Salaries increase by incremental steps based on tenure and level of higher education. At the highest step in Westford, a teacher with a master’s degree would earn $74,185 per year, as compared to a teacher in Wellesley who would earn $80,822.

But the push to even the scales won’t be easy. Although Selectman Mark Kost voted in favor of putting the request on the warrant, he made it clear he’s not ready to support a tax increase.

“…my question is, if this override doesn’t pass what are your plans?” he said. “…I think it’s going to be really important for me at some point to understand what those are before I can make a decision on whether to support an override or not.”

Follow Joyce Pellino Crane on Twitter @joypellinocrane.