After the thousands of downed branches that littered Westford after the October blizzard, it only seemed fitting that storm would indirectly serve to build a soapbox.
All eyes were on the Westford School Committee and their decision on what to do regarding five early lost days of school from Hurricane Irene and the Snowtober storm, but those eyes were quickly averted when approximately two to three Westford educators in green t-shirts showed up outside.
The Westford Education Association (WEA), the union for most of the staff in the Westford School District, came to the meeting in the hopes of borrowing the spotlight cast on the snow day decision for their own ongoing negotiations.
With the first mediation meeting between the WEA and the town looming on November 30, the WEA members hoped to make the meeting a reminder to the public about the looming meeting and the fact that Westford's teachers have been working without a contractual agreement since the school year began.
"We've been talking about different places to get the news out to the public," said Westford Education Association president Ruth Freeman. "(the School Committee) haven't changed their offer or their discussion or their stance since we started, and personally I think that's a mandate from Town Hall."
Although the WEA had engaged in a similar rally on the Common earlier in the day, the appearance on this night was certainly a surprise.
Contact between members of the WEA and the School Committee outside the and during the open forum portion of the Committee’s meeting was cordial.
“I’m sure that everybody cares about what’s in the best interests of school children of Westford,” said School Committee chairman Angela Harkness. “And that’s a common goal that we can all work on, to reach a conclusion that will help everybody.”
Ironically enough, the buzz that accompanied the WEA members at the beginning of the meeting had long since subsided three hours later when the decision on making up the school days came to its conclusion.
Although none of the five options presented in a poll by the School District to Westford’s parents, students and teachers (which was duplicated for the public at large by ) were particularly satisfying for Superintendent Bill Olsen or members of the Committee, Olsen was firm in his belief that the decision had to be made now before more possible snow days pushed the school year further into portions of June he considered nonconductive to learning.
“I don’t believe that doing nothing is an option,” he said, noting that he had never seen five snow days prior to the beginning of winter during his 25 years as superintendent before this year.
School Committee member Erika Kohl made a motion to approve Olsen’s proposal of taking the two days out of February and April Vacation, which was quickly opposed by Judith Culver, who preferred instead making up the days on Saturdays.
Olsen recommended against the Saturday plan due to what he found was a large number of side jobs for educators and older students on Saturdays, as well as religious concerns due to the day being the Jewish Sabbath.
The superintendent also recommended against cancelling February Vacation altogether, an approach championed by Arthur Benoit, following research from other Massachusetts superintendents who reported to Olsen that absenteeism increased dramatically during cancelled vacations, and that respondents to the polls were not in favor of that plan.
Ultimately, Olsen recommended that the two days be Tuesdays and Wednesdays since the district could not legally force children to school on Patriots’ Day, which is scheduled for the first day of April Vacation.
The motion to make up four of the five snow days currently lost so far on those Tuesdays and Wednesdays was approved by the Committee 4-2-1, with Benoit and Culver opposing and David Keele absent.