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Schools Face Growing Budget Squeeze

November 28, 2018

WESTFORD -- Officials face challenges as they work toward a fiscal 2020 budget that manages anticipated growth in the schools despite limited financial resources.

Planning is still in the early stages, but as it currently stands, Town Manager Jodi Ross’ proposed budget would allocate $1.2 million less to the district than the amount Superintendent Bill Olsen requested.

Olsen argued the additional money he is seeking -- which would represent a 4.7 percent increase over the fiscal 2019 budget -- is necessary to prepare for a potential influx of 40 new students next year and 300 to 400 in the next three years, attracted to town by new housing development projects.

“This year is one of the more challenging years I’ve seen in the last 10 years,” Olsen said. “There has to be some recognition of the fact that we’re the town department most immediately impacted by increased residential growth.”

The proposed expenses were not exclusively aimed at future growth, however. Olsen’s request includes money to cover two elementary special-education teachers whose positions were not budgeted in fiscal year 2019, and the district is planning to increase teacher salaries following passage of a Proposition 2 1/2 override in 2017.

Ross said she proposed a smaller budget for the schools than Olsen requested out of necessity, driven by modest revenue growth and needs across every town department. The police department requested three new officers, she offered as an example, but the budget only allowed room for one.

“There were plenty of town requests I was not able to fill due to limited resources,” Ross said. “We’ve got to work together, and I don’t want to sound like I’m in disagreement or conflict with the schools, but I have a limited amount of new resources and I have to spread that around in a way that seems fair.”

Another key area is the $1.6 million override passed last year. Advocates argued at the time that educators in Westford were not paid competitive rates compared to their peers and that raises were necessary to retain talent. When it was approved by a majority of voters, the plan was for the money to be added to the school district in chunks over a period of three years.

However, Olsen said Ross’ proposed budget lumps the $530,000 annual installment into a 2.5 percent increase to the school’s budget rather than adding it on top of a standard 2.5 percent increase as he believes should happen.

“I’m not sure that was the original understanding and intent (of the override),” Olsen said. “My interpretation, and I think some of the SC members, are questioning -- we’re actually getting a 1.6 percent increase and being asked to fund the teacher salaries from making up that $530,000 of the override through moneys that are already in our budget.”

Ross said the practice is consistent with how last year’s budget was approached and that salary increases should be considered part of the school budget.

“Just as the funding for my contracts are included in my budget, that is included in his budget,” she said.

Both Olsen and Ross stressed that they hope to find a solution and will continue to work together. They plan to sit down in the coming weeks and revisit the budget, but Olsen said if the town’s appropriation stays as proposed, he may need to consider reducing or cutting programs.

Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisLisinski.

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