Budget meeting on 2/24 solidifies the allocation of funds

Anushka Patil, News Editor

At the Westford School Committee’s February 24 meeting, specific changes were made that will affect students mainly at the elementary level. Superintendent Bill Olsen and assistant superintendent Kerry Clery presented specific cuts to the budget concerning the $400,000 town funds to supplement higher special education tuitions, the role of assistant principal, two extra elementary teachers, and student fees. The meeting,  at the Millenium building, cleared up and finalized these budget proposals, while also giving Olsen and committee member Megan Eckroth a platform to voice statements on their recent controversies.

Prior to this meeting, the school committee voted 6-1 not to renew Olsen’s contract. Moreover, this meeting highlighted that the decision on Olsen’s contract is currently in the works.

“As of tonight, there is no final resolution regarding his contract. The negotiations are active and ongoing. We are optimistic for a solution and anticipate having additional updates at our next March meeting,” school committee chairwoman Avery Adam said.

Aside from the tension surrounding Olsen and his contract, Eckroth released a statement explaining her departure from the last school committee meeting as well as her verbal resignation at the time. Eckroth explained that she has reflected on the meeting and has come to the conclusion she will continue as a part of the board for the rest of her three-year term on the committee.

“Many of you watching and in the room are probably surprised to see me tonight, so I did provide a brief statement if the committee will indulge me reading it. During the February tenth school committee meeting, I made a decision, and an announcement, at that moment, that was in the best interest of my own emotional and mental well-being. Since that meeting, I have taken time with my family, in fact, out of state, for a week, to reflect on the events of that evening. I feel that it is my obligation to fulfill my three-year term to its end as a school committee member, a member of the policy subcommittee, and, for the past two years, as a member of the capital planning committee. Thank you for your understanding during this time,” Eckroth said.

Headlining the meeting, the school committee began discussing the importance of the circuit breaker in aiding programs in the Westford School District.

“This year, our special education tuitions are much higher than we budgeted for and in conjunction with that we received fewer credits from the valley collaborative, $140,000 less, so it is putting a lot more pressure on the circuit breaker because that is basically the only thing we have as extra funds to pay for these increased tuitions,” school committee member Gloria Miller said.

For special education, $230,000 of the $400,000 will go to the department. Also, with $60,000 of the funding, one FTE (full-time equivalent) elementary adjustment counselor will be provided to Day and Crisafulli.

Finally, concerning the $400,000, $110,000 will be allocated for the schools in order to support funds needed for any unanticipated staff or staff needed to balance out larger class sizes.

Also, with the help of Chapter 70 funds from the state, the committee talked about the addition of two elementary school teachers. From an original of $141,000, this $137,250 will go to grades k-5, in which additional teachers may be necessary since these grades are a “pressure point” for enrollment, according to the director of school finance Ingrid Nilsson. Olsen gave this recommendation.

Another elementary concern is the reduction from six to four teachers, an idea implemented by the school committee. One area that will be further discussed is decreasing the 1.0 physical education teacher down to 0.8.

“Currently, for music and art, they have two different FTE counts. Art is able to cover all classes through elementary, currently, so even if we reduce only three or four sections, we know that they will still continue to be able to do that because it’s still less than what they are doing now. Music, we now have shaved that back down to match art because they have the same amount of classes they have to teach. I don’t expect [music and art] needing to be adjusted. What we will look at is the PE teacher and if we need to reduce by a 0.8 instead of a 1.0, depending on the number of sections. PE is a little different than music and art because, unlike music and art, for PE, they also teach health,” Clery said.

Miller later proposed the idea of an additional 0.2 teacher for the Spanish department on a middle school level. After deciding to keep Latin, the school committee feels it necessary to combat the already large Spanish class size by providing an additional teacher. Later, Olsen reassured Miller that the foreign language issue was being considered, not specific to the 0.2 addition.

Moving on to student-specific fees, the meeting highlighted the change in costs of the activity fee, the parking fee, the athletics cost, the bus transportation fee, the grades 3-5 music fee, and the early arrival fee. A finalized list of the fees was broadcasted to viewers.

The new fees highlight the school-related costs for students in the district.

Specifically speaking to the parking cost, Miller expressed her concern for the spike to $200 from $50, despite the fact that other schools in the area have similar fees close to the $200 price range. She emphasized that many students have to pay for their own parking pass, something a spike to $200 might cause some trouble with. 

However, Eckroth explained her point of view on the fees and her outlook on their necessity.

“I think it’s good to see all sides. Maybe it is unfortunate that fifty stayed fifty for so long since we could not see where that fifty could really go. I think the fifty lagged way behind, and we talked about it being cheaper than the bus fee. Perhaps, it will encourage carpooling, since we are short on spots as it is. After having a conversation about it, I feel comfortable about [the fee],” Eckroth said.

On another note, the committee also voted unanimously on the assistant principal and support counselor job description. Clery discussed the importance of professional development for this job field and its importance in the school atmosphere.

Additionally, Clery discussed the changes that will be made to the fifth-grade camp to be budget-friendly while also following the PACT system, standing for patience, acceptance, cooperation, and teamwork. Changing up the format of the camp, the PACT system will be a four-day program in which the superintendents, principals, fifth-grade teachers, and parent volunteers will join together to deliver a similar experience to the on-going middle school students.

Nilsson ended the meeting by providing the Q1/Q2 budget update, expressing the financial state of Westford’s school system.

“This is a snapshot of our financial situation for our first two quarters. In comparison to previous years, we are a little lower than in 2018 and 2019, in the second quarter snapshot. Every year, funding is tighter and tighter, even though we receive increases every year, it’s just the costs also go up. We are doing more with less in the big picture,” Nilsson said.

Watch the whole meeting here: https://www.westfordcat.org/watch-online/government/meetings-coverage/school-committee/episode/2-24-2020