School committee discusses English cuts, votes on full-day kindergarten


Information Provided by Westford School Committee

Several cuts are proposed at WA and central office for FY23.

Keertana Gangireddy, Co-Editor-in-Chief

The Westford School Committee discussed various aspects of the FY23 budget, as well as approved tuition-free full-day kindergarten and proposed additional cuts at their meeting on Monday, Feb. 14.

School committee unanimously voted for full-day kindergarten for everyone, a concept that was initially proposed in December. As the ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) grant of $587,730 only partially covers the cost, the committee established a seven-year strategic plan that pulls funding from the school’s operating budget to ensure full-day kindergarten is financially sustainable in the future. 

Thus, the committee members have higher confidence in the full-day kindergarten program, which although is a large financial undertaking for the town, is beneficial in the long run.

As mentioned by school committee member Sean Kelly, Westford residents with older students may not fully understand the positive cost-benefit analysis of Westford having such a program. Kelly noted that the program may help with the recent decrease in K-5 enrollment. 

“K-5 enrollment seems to be going down every year and I think it’s a problem. We as a town have to continue to offer things to entice young families to come to this town,” Kelly said.

School committee member Gloria Miller also stated that Westford Public Schools (WPS) is an outlier among school districts in Massachusetts, as Westford does not currently offer tuition-free full-day kindergarten. Thus, according to Miller, had school committee voted against full-day kindergarten, the State of Massachusetts would have possibly enforced the school district to offer the program in the near future. 

According to school committee member Kathryn Clear, full-day kindergarten will facilitate equitable education among Westford’s young learners, as there won’t be any disparity in the amount of schooling rising first-graders receive. As maintained by Clear, although some parents were concerned about the grand amount of money funneled into offering this service, a solid educational base for younger students will be beneficial as schools move toward normalcy in coming years in the aftermath of the pandemic.

In addition to approving full-day kindergarten, the school committee considered the possible ramifications of cutting certain positions for FY23 at Westford Academy, specifically a 1.0 FTE (full-time equivalent) from the English department, as well as an additional 0.6 FTE from the high school, which amounts to three classes. The 0.6 cut will be driven by student interest within electives across all departments. 

According to Clery, the Westford Education Association (WEA) will have preliminary conversations determining seniority and licensure for cuts. However, she mentioned that determining seniority is difficult with the English department, as the English department in general is made up of a senior staff. 

Three English teachers at WA, Rosemary Dowd, Kathryn Flinner, and Jack Holbrook were all hired approximately ten years ago, creating ambiguity in who may be cut. According to some English teachers, Dowd, Flinner, and Holbrook were informed that they may be impacted by the proposed cuts approximately five weeks ago. Clery mentioned that the school committee and WEA will undergo the long process of evaluating all areas for a 1.0 FTE reduction. 

“It is difficult to lose any staff member and, in particular, when we’re looking at our current English department, it’s a senior staff. There’s not a lot of movement amongst our English teachers. But, throughout this process, we are looking at everybody [in the district],” Clery said. 

In regards to the English cuts, Miller expressed concerns over the department losing more faculty members after being in a similar situation two years ago for FY21 with a 0.6 FTE reduction. 

“I am surprised to see that department on the list again so soon when I go there. […] English is a core subject and is a hallmark strength of our students. […] I just worry about a reduction in this department. I know that by saying that, that means the reduction has to come from someplace else and I am mindful of that onerous process that led up to this,” Miller said. 

According to WA English teachers, Westford’s English department is commended by many alumni to have greatly prepared them for college due to the commitment to promoting quality education from WA English teachers that is made possible by the 22:1 student-to-teacher ratio, which also allows for teachers to pay more personal attention to their students, a factor stressed heavily by WA English teachers in their statement to school committee.

“English teachers are often frontline academic ambassadors when it comes to recognizing and supporting our students’ social and emotional needs and concerns. More students means less time for personal attention. Less time for personal attention worries us, especially after the educational and emotional disruptions caused by the pandemic,” the statement read.

As for additional cuts, Superintendent Christopher Chew hopes to reorganize the central office by reducing the HR Coordinator and Director of Digital Learning, as well as hiring a Director of Curriculum Instructure with a focus in equity, so they can assume the position similar to a Director of Equity as well. 

At the Elementary levels, four of fifteen reading interventionists (RIs) may be cut, as many students who receive support from reading interventionists are in small groups. Thus, student groups may be combined to allow for less RI positions. Additionally, the need for RIs varies across different elementary schools, as they all have different enrollment numbers. 

However, many school committee members voiced concerns for cutting RIs across elementary schools, especially as students who worked with RIs were shown to show score improvements on diagnostic tests, as well as better fluency and chronological awareness. Kelly described the RI cuts as a “tough pill to swallow”, showing apprehension with the reduction as it may entail detrimental effects on young learners with special education needs, especially during the pandemic.

“When we keep seeing reductions like this, […] it kind of feels like death by a thousand cuts. Maybe we don’t feel it the first year and maybe [not the] cumulative year, [but in the future,] it’s just my theory is that it’s going to catch up to us at the lower levels,” Kelly said.

The next school committee meeting on Feb. 28 will include a vote on the budget proposal, as well as public comment. Additionally, there will be a public hearing for the budget on Mar. 14 after the school committee approves it.