Westford voters will face difficult budget decisions this spring, and perhaps some of the most difficult decisions were on the docket were on the Finance Committee’s plate on Thursday night.
Superintendent Bill Olsen and the Westford School Committee was on hand to present a proposed Fiscal Year 2014 department budget of $49,775,689 for the inspection of the Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee, a number that grew approximately $400,000 in the past few weeks due largely to the addition of a new special education student that recently moved into the district.
The figure presented an increase of 4.59 percent, which Olsen informed the boards was near the average statewide increase of 4.25 percent and included teacher salaries that were $2,182 below the state per pupil average and included multiple new fees as well as new positions the School Committee believes are needed to maintain the district’s current standards, such as a new districtwide technology director.
However, much of the over two hours of discussion on the figure revolved around the possibility of the need for a Prop. 2 ½ override, leading to broader questions on the town’s long term fiscal realities.
The possibility of an override itself caught some members of the Finance Committee off guard, such as Chairman Mike Princi, who participating remotely from St. Louis.
“It’s almost the fourth quarter in making a decision,” said Princi. “What I do know is that overrides that have been successful in the past have had sufficient time and a lot of voter dialogue, and we’re going to be going into a situation this year where we’re not going to be able to afford that.”
For Selectman Bob Jefferies, the discussion of an override was one that will eventually be addressed, saying that money could be taken out of next year’s capital expenditures and going under recommended reserves to avoid an override.
However, he also noted that would only delay the inevitable and it didn’t address the real issues of the town’s structural deficit and approach school budgets as a whole.
“It’s interesting that we always have a different conversation with the schools than with other departments and that it’s a political conservation. Other departments ask for money, but we don’t ask the police department what they’re spending per crime,” said Jefferies.
For Selectman Kelly Ross and others at the table, if the district’s requests for new positions are kept within any budget, an override is a necessity due to last year’s teacher contract negotiations.
“I understand the case for pursuing (an override), I just want to make sure it’s done in a responsible manner. Our unions stepped up and took two years of zeroes and that was a big help to us, that’s what helped us get through to now,” said Ross. “We said to them, ‘we are doing this to save your jobs,’ so I don’t want to take money out of our reserves to hire new people if it breaks our commitment to saving jobs. If we add new employees to the system, we have to provide new revenue, so an override would have to happen.”
Ultimately, no decision was made on whether or not to pursue an override vote on Thursday, with Town Manager Jodi Ross advising the two boards that an override vote could be delayed if needed, but that “the clock was ticking” and a decision would have to be made soon.
Earlier in the evening, Nashoba Valley Technical High School District superintendent Judith Klimkiewicz presented her request of $534,430 from Westford to the boards.
Klimkiewicz told the board about new sports fields and a new performing arts center coming to the school and indicated some of the biggest costs in the overall budget included renegotiations in the district’s bus contract and the addition of a new school resource officer from the Westford Police Department, in addition to other expenditures.
However, Klimkiwicz also told the board that projected spending could be lower than projected depending on Chapter 70 aid from Beacon Hill, with estimates there currently not available, and resolution on final figures for federal grant money pending the resolution of the Fiscal Cliff and Debt Ceiling negotiations in Washington.