Three key takeaways from 1/10 school committee meeting


Sophia Keang

The January school committee meeting discussed the influx of COVID-19 cases these past few weeks, as well as budget updates and plans for the 2022 and 2023 school years.

Sophia Keang, Co-Managing Editor

The Westford School Committee discussed the rising concerns regarding the influx of COVID-19 cases and absence rates these past weeks, as well as budget updates and plans for the 2022-23 school year during the Jan. 10 meeting. Here are the three key takeaways from the night: 

I. Superintendent’s Fiscal Year 23 Budget Proposal

In preparation for the 2022-23 school year, Superintendent Christopher Chew proposed a budget request to the school committee of approximately $64,188,000. Chew’s request is calculated to be 2% greater than the FY22 budget request of around $62,988,000. 

The recent staff shortages and busing deficiency has caused inconvenience for many in the community, which Chew addressed through a financial lens. New growth is generally correlated with residential development and marks a beneficial change in a district. Unfortunately, this year, Westford’s new growth has decreased as a result of the pandemic, which heavily impacts FY23’s budget and requires some cuts. This has affected the town’s revenues and has, therefore, affected WPS’s budget.

Each year, WPS requests for an increase in budget appropriations, which is the amount of money the school district receives from the town to emulate the schools’ expenses. Last year, the FY22 budget appropriations were at an all-time low at a percent increase of 1.4% in comparison to the average annual 3.3% increase in the previous eight to ten years. 

Additionally, Chew mentions that enrollment rates for WPS are expected to decrease during the next year, which is a crucial factor to his budget plans. 

“Based on enrollments and what WPS can support, we have looked into reducing staffing at Westford Academy by 4.0 Full-Time Equivalents (FTE) instead of automatically assuming we will rehire a new teacher when another one has decided to resign, we should look at if we didn’t rehire that position,” Chew said. *Stay tuned for more information to come on FTE’s in the near future

Due to insufficient resources, the prioritization of goals is necessary. The following were chosen costs to be reduced for the FY23, along with the reasons why based on enrollment:

  • 4.0 FTE @ WA – $252,000 – The increase of some honors and AP level class sizes and possible section reductions for some electives
  • 2.0 FTE @ Elementary schools – $126,000 – Will continue to maintain 22:1 (average) student to teacher ratio
  • 2.0 FTE @ Middle schools – $126,000 – Will continue to maintain 22:1 (average) student to teacher ratio in on-team classes (math, science, SS, ELA)
  • MCAS Aides Stipends – $13,000 – Less of a need for this position due to online MCAS testing

In order to meet the town’s appropriations, some areas continue to be prioritized to accommodate budget cuts. Chew mentions that 82.9% of the budget is towards salaries while the remaining 17.1% will be towards operations/facilities, transportation, special education, and out-of-district tuition for WPS.

“Like any other public school, salaries are the lion’s share of the budget. We will still have our major revenue categories like town allocation, circuit breaker, grants, and other miscellaneous revenues,” Chew said. 

Thus, Chew requested two new adjustments that should be allocated in the new budget. Here are the new adjustments:

  • Increase Substitute pay – $35,531 – Increase daily rate from $80 to $90
  • 1.0 Human Resource Personnel – $70,539 – An outside adult along with an internal analysis identified the need for an additional 1.0 position in the Human Resource Office

“We have talked about increasing the substitute pay to $100, however, that wasn’t possible with the budget constraints. So we decided a good compromise would be to meet halfway at $90 so we are somewhat leveled with other neighboring schools,” Chew said. “Also, we currently have temporary Human Resource personnel for this year, but we think it’s necessary because we cannot have only two people manage our entire employment group.”

II. COVID-19 Updates (Case numbers, testing, DESE’s guidelines) 

The recent rise of COVID-19 cases has been found to be a concern for many in Westford. Before the holiday break, high absence rates within the WPS district where many speculated that COVID-19 had a direct relationship. This trend continued to be reflective of the school’s current position after the break as many families traveled during vacation. According to Chew, there were 322 positive COVID-19 cases and 80 close contacts from the week of Jan. 3 to Jan. 7.

Additionally, the mask mandate in schools across the state will be extended to Feb. 28 as announced by DESE (Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education).

Absences throughout the past week have continued to stay high in comparison to the standard absent rates in the district. As a result, Chew recommended that WPS discontinue sending out daily COVID-19 notification letters to parents, believing it is unnecessary and there are alternative ways to convey the information such as directing them to the town’s COVID-19 dashboard. 

“The initial intent of sending out the COVID-19 notification emails from the schools was to provide transparency for the community, and I think this made a lot of sense early on. However, I think that the numbers have now gotten to the point where it’s not as necessary when we could just direct people to our COVID-19 dashboard so they are able to see the numbers more specifically,” Chew said.

The dashboard is updated weekly unlike the “daily” COVID-19 letters sent out by schools. With this approach as a way of preserving transparency among the community, he adds that the dashboard could be updated daily in order to keep track of trends.  

Westford Public Schools’ Test & Stay program, the multi-day COVID-19 testing for unvaccinated students who are identified as close contacts at school, also has increased to 750 tests performed. Of the 750 tests, 7 results came back positive, which is an increase in comparison to Dec. 20’s last update when only 4 students were found to be positive. 

In addition to testing, Chew is exploring the possibility of pool testing, a type of COVID-19 test that tests a group sample with a diagnostic test in hopes to identify positive cases along with close contacts.

“Ideally, as more and more people are getting vaccinated, more people are becoming ineligible for the Test & Stay program, we hoped that we could shift some of our resources to then look at more proactive measures. The challenge we’re facing is, according to the CIC Health (Cambridge Innovation Center of Health), there has been a significant lack of supplies for schools who wish to do pool testing,” Chew said. 

While cases in Westford continue to rise, Chew claims that Westford schools are not likely to be shutting down or going remote for an extended period of time in the near future.

“Fortunately, the outbreak hasn’t taken a tremendous toll on our teachers and staff like other districts which is why we are able to keep schools open. It is also shown that closing down schools do have a negative impact on the social and mental well-being of our students and teachers. So it doesn’t seem like that’s going to be the case,” Chew said. 

III. New Tech Graduation Requirement Policy for 2022-23

The new technology graduation requirement was first proposed during the Dec. 20 school committee meeting. For many years, students at Westford Academy were required to take at least one semester-long technology course within their four years of high school. However, with students bringing about concerns regarding the flexibility of their schedules, the School Committee unanimously passed a motion to remove the required minimum 2.5 technology course needed for graduation. The policy will go into effect for the 2022-23 school year. 

Some students are relieved to have another weight being taken off their shoulders allowing them more room to take classes that fit their desires.

“I think that it was a good idea to remove the requirement. In my experience, most people at WA already have a lot of experience with technology regardless of whether or not they took a technology class. I also think that it forced some students to take a class they didn’t want to take so this should allow people to have more space in their schedules for classes they want to take,” sophomore Shailaja Gillett said.

For more information on the new 2022-23 graduation requirement policy, click here.