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Editor’s Note: Click here to read our detailed budget story.
At the start of the Dec. 16 School Committee meeting, member Chris Sanders reminded residents that they are all part of the same community.
“There’s no us and they,” he said. “You’re the town, we’re the town, and keep making your voices heard.”
The comment was made inside the Blanchard Middle School where the meeting took place to accommodate an expected large turnout similar to a week earlier inside the Millennium School where parents, students and alumni packed the building.
The sizzling 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.
Early in the meeting resident Joe Vozzella clarified the budget challenges faced by Superintendent Bill Olsen.
“You needed about 4 percent not 2.4 percent, so you’re starting way below what you need. And you’re forcing yourselves and the kids and everyone else to meet a budget number that you never even shaped…,” he said. “It just seems to me that we’re continuing to go down this process. Last year I was at a budget meeting and we talked about all the different cuts we had to do because we went from 2.6 (percent) to 2.5 (percent). Now this year we’re doing that from 2.5 (percent) to 2.4 (percent).”
Vozzella said the budget trend is not aligned with the priorities of the town.
“The town votes in a 2.5 percent override just for the schools,” Vozzella said. “In those same years that we paid off that override you went from an average of 3.5 (percent) to 4 percent year over year increases…How do we help advocate for you? Because it doesn’t seem you’re getting what you need.”
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.
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.
Parents, students and educators all lobbied for more funding during the three-hour meeting, only to return again on Dec. 17 to make their pleas to the select board.
Sanders expressed optimism as the School Committee meeting began.
“For me, as hard as this process can be, I’ve been really heartened at the passion and the where-with-all of not just our students but the whole community…”
The next School Committee meeting is scheduled for Jan. 13 at 7:30 p.m. in the Millennium Building.
UPDATE: A commentator at the Dec. 16 School Committee meeting was not initially identified by WestfordCAT, but after a search, he was identified as Joe Vozzella of Westford.