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A packed meeting room inside the J.V. Fletcher Library brought Selectmen, the Finance Committee and the School Committee together on Jan. 24 to review a School Department budget that may require as much as $1.247 million in cuts for fiscal 2020, beginning July 1.
Each fiscal year, the town’s nine schools eat up about half of the total municipal budget, leaving other town departments such as police and fire with unfulfilled requests. This was driven home at the Jan. 24 joint meeting when Police Chief Tom McEnaney and Fire Chief Joe Targ spoke of level funded budgets despite a growing town population with more than 700 residential units under construction.
“We’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got,” said McEnaney, who requested a 6.8 percent budgetary increase for fiscal 2020 and got a 3.3 percent increase.
[Watch the joint meeting video here.]
Town Manager Jodi Ross initially recommended a fiscal 2020 school budget of $59,447,329, representing a 2.5 percent increase over fiscal 2019. However, .09 percent of that amount would include one-third of $1.6 million set aside to boost teachers salaries by 6 percent over the next three years. The tax hike over the limitations of proposition 2 1/2 was approved by voters in May 2017. Proposition 2 1/2 is a state law that limits property tax increases to 2.5 percent, plus new growth. [Continue below].
A Work in Progress
The town manager’s recommendation is not set in stone, said Ross’s finance director, Dan O’Donnell.
“We haven’t finalized the figure yet,” he stated.
Superintendent Everett V. Olsen originally sought $60,694,417 for a 4.65 percent increase over fiscal 2019.
“I presented a budget to the Westford School Committee that was 4.65 percent. About $1.25 million more than was available to us,” Olsen said.
But the budget remains fluid, according to School Finance Director Kathy Auth who noted that the School Committee, the Board of Selectmen, the Finance Committee and Ross are still in discussions.
In fact, after Olsen presented his proposed budget reductions to the School Committee on Jan. 28, members took no vote, signaling negotiations will continue.
[Watch the Jan. 28 School Committee meeting here.
Proposed School Budget Cuts
Olsen’s proposed cuts include two full-time middle school teachers; six full-time general education teaching assistants for grades 1 and 2; and two full-time pre-first teachers.
A full-time digital learning specialist would be replaced with a full-time curriculum coordinator and a full-time technician; and 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.
Also slashed would be the purchase of special education transportation vehicles for $148k. A $10K entrepreneur partnership with Babson College would get axed. Substitute teacher coverage would be reduced in place of using Google Classroom and sending students to study on their own in the library, for a savings of $15K. 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. (See the complete list of recommended budgetary cuts in the accompanying sidebar).
Parents Speak Out
Parents are pressuring officials to fund the schools above all else.
“It seems like the only department that’s getting a reduction in force is the schools,” said one unidentified male resident at the Jan. 24 meeting. However, Ross noted she slashed more than $700,000 from budget requests by municipal department heads.
“As a resident I’m here because of the school system,” said another male resident, adding that with the proposed school budget cuts, he would “think twice” about moving to the town.
Selectman Chairman Mark Kost spelled out the options.
“At the end of the day, it’s about choices,” he said. “So the choices are — based on what’s left available in revenue — …we don’t fund the incremental public safety staffing, we don’t give raises to any of the unions that are up, and the third is you either raise fees, like pay-as-you-throw, or you cut services.”
Weighing on Olsen are a string of needs and expectations. Westford schools consistently rank among the highest in the state in assessment tests, and parents expect those results to remain the same regardless of cuts. Residential buildings of more than 700 units, now under construction, will likely increase the student population, necessitating more buses to transport students and more educators to teach them. Improving school safety and meeting special education requirements are also budget challenges.
“We’ve created a school system that I think we can be very proud of,” Olsen said. “I want to do everything possible to make sure we keep the school system high quality.”
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UPDATE: Quotes from the town’s finance director, the School Department’s finance director, and the chairman of the Board of Selectmen were added. Quotes by attendees of the Jan. 24 meeting were also added.