Will there be an override on the warrant at this spring’s Town Meeting? It’s still not clear, but the Finance Committee continued to discuss the possibilities during Thursday night’s meeting along with the Board of Selectmen and School Committee.
The possibility came in part due to an approximately 4.5 percent proposed increase from last year’s school budget request by the School Committee, approximately $975,000 above Town Manager Jodi Ross’ recommended budget.
That increase came primarily from to $450,000 for new expenses related to state mandated special education costs along with three other areas.
The first was increases also came from new positions begun this year, like the School Resource Officer at Westford Academy ($72,000), followed by positions that the School Committee would either eventually save the town money or cost more not to have such as Special Education teaching assistants ($36,000 each), and a Director of Technology ($80,000), and positions that are required to bring problem areas up to resident expectations such as three literacy specialists for Third and Fourth graders (around $200,000)
Without that additional funding, School Committee chairwoman Angela Harkness indicated that additional fees would be possibly be needed for bussing and extracurricular activities as well as cuts in bussing, positions in school libraries and school nurses and enlarging class sizes in some areas.
Town Manager Jodi Ross indicated that revenue enhancement would be required in order to fill the gap due to what is becoming a continuing long term structural budget deficit, although Selectman Andrea Peraner-Sweet suggested that the money could potentially come from going under minimum recommended reserves or taking from stabilization funds as possibility while Selectman Jim Sullivan also recommended the possibility of closing one of Westford’s schools as enrollment continues to drop.
Harkness and Superintentent Bill Olsen said discontinuing use of a school would be difficult due to where enrollment shortfalls are located and that even analyzing the possibility of a closure would take more than a year, but resident Rob Kreegan told the assembled boards it could be done in half an hour with computer programs and that the real issue was continuing growth of the School Department budget.
“For the past ten years, the school department budget has become larger and larger every year,” said Kreegan. “If it continues to grow at the pace it has over the next ten years at the same percentage, the school budget will become the only budget we have.”
Kreegan went on noting that the Highway Department has not added a new employee since the 1970s despite hundreds of new miles of roads in town and that the Police Department has not added a new employee in ten years despite significant population growth.
Olsen in turn disputed Kreegan’s opinion that a structural overhaul of the department’s budget was in order, citing figures on the district’s efficiency as well as anecdotes from other superintendents and school committees in the state who saw themselves as an entity separate from other departments in town.
The Finance Committee will meet again at Town Hall on Monday at 7 p.m.