The Essex Westford School District board has approved a $81.4 million budget for fiscal year 2020. After offsetting revenues, the educational spending — the amount the district will receive from the state Education Fund — equates to about $61.4 million, or an increase of 1.88 percent.

There was one ‘nay’ vote from outgoing school board member Marla Durham. Patrick Murray was absent.

The district has a $4.2 million carryover fund, which includes unused funds from fiscal years 17 and 18. Of those funds, $3.8 million will be used in this year’s budget.

EWSD chief operating officer Brian Donahue said he’s proud of the district’s work to keep the tax impacts low this year: with common level of appraisal (CLA) numbers, Essex Town and Junction residents will see about a half cent increase and Westford will see a cent and a half increase. On a $300,000 home, that equates to about a $10 increase in the town and village, and a $47 increase in Westford.

Without the CLA impact, the incentivized tax rate would be $1.45, or about a .63 percent decrease on this year’s rate, and these numbers continue to decrease after the merger.

Absent the CLA and changes in other parts of the tax formula made in Montpelier, the district’s tax rate would be lower than it was before the merger three years ago, Donahue said. The district has saved about $1.4 million since the merger including reductions in the central office spending and personnel, according to Donahue.

The remaining $365,000 of carryover funds will be assigned to the capital reserve fund for a long-term facilities study. Donahue explained the study will be a comprehensive look at the merged district’s over one million square feet of building space to highlight where improvements need to be made.

The board also approved the administration’s proposal to use $635,000 of one-time funds to continue on the promise of merger and social and emotional learning in a two-part plan.

The first part includes hiring five additional board certified behavioral analysts (BCBAs) to have one in each building to build capacity in social and emotional learning for pre-K to eighth grade students. Currently, all eight pre-K to eighth grade schools share three BCBAs, which the administrative leadership team says stretches them thin.

Dylan McNamara, student support services co-director, explained the BCBAs are integrated into the district to provide behavior intervention for struggling students. However, with only three staff for eight buildings, principals and other administrative leaders are having to deal with behavior issues, taking them away from evaluating teachers and other administrative work.

“The more time our instructional leaders are addressing behavior, the less time they’re able to focus on core instruction, the less time they’re able to really support the teachers in the way that has the biggest impact,” McNamara explained.

He said that there have been over 700 behavioral referrals in the kindergarten to eighth grade buildings so far this year, a number that has been increasing every year.

While these changes are also part of Act 173’s requirements to increase social and emotional learning capacity in districts across the state, McNamara believes hiring more BCBAs will only help EWSD in the long run.

“It allows for early intervention and we believe, if done right, it has the ability to decrease costs over time,” he explained. “We look at it as an investment in our future by front-loading these supports and having more capacity building.”

Superintendent Beth Cobb added that having a behavioral interventionist in every building will only work to strengthen student supports and make them feel welcome in school every single day, so that they’re ready to learn.

“Strengthening relationships with students and adults and making sure that every student has at least one adult they can turn to in a school is really important,” she explained.

Currently, the district spends just under $300,000 on its three BCBAs. Adding five more will cost $490,000.

The second part of the proposal includes hiring a co-principal for Essex Elementary and Founders Memorial School who will work with current principals Peter Farrell and Wendy Cobb as a “triumvirate” of leaders.

The two principals said they already work together closely to make decisions that affect both schools, and act as if the two were under one roof in a kindergarten to fifth grade school. Due to the large sizes of their schools, however, they said they need more support. While they have both worked with assistant principals in the past, Farrell and Wendy Cobb said a co-principal will help tie the two schools closer together and “generate consistency” across the two buildings.

“We really don’t see this as adding another person just to divvy up the responsibilities,” explained Wendy Cobb. “It really is much about…three principals working together to really align and implement all of our decisions.”

Farrell added that a third principal would help free up each leader at some point in the week to really focus on one task, like teacher evaluation, without worrying about being pulled away to put out proverbial fires.

“We would need to be prioritizing, as a trio, what is the main thing that has to happen today,” Farrell explained. “If it’s my set of observations for a teacher…then I am doing those observations, not being called away.”

The other two principals would be at their posts at either school for the day, and Farrell could focus on evaluations, for example.

Wendy Cobb added the third principal would allow the leaders to focus on better preparing students, and would cater to their individual strengths, creating a stronger leadership model in EES and Founders, which currently house almost 800 students between the two buildings.

“We’re telling you we need that support for us to really do this job well and effectively so that all of our kids can be successful,” she told the board.

Because the five additional BCBAs and new co-principal will be funded using $635,000 of one-time carryover funds, the administration said if all goes well and the district decides to continue funding the positions, they will have to find cost savings in the next budget cycle.

“Sometimes when you’re innovative, you have to put that money up front and then figure out where that’s going to come from,” Beth Cobb explained. “But we are a dedicated team to see where that is going to come from…I know that our leaders can do what they need to do in their schools and our teachers can teach and our kids are ready to learn, then we’re ready to dig away to see where we can make some cuts.”

Some board members were concerned with how late the proposed additions were brought to the board, just several weeks before they had to approve a budget. Others supported the proposal.

“Sometimes we’ve got to invest, we’re investing in equity,” said board member Diane Clemens. “To me, this gives the best chance for our kids and our staff to function as best we can, so let’s do it.”

The FY20 budget also shows about a 1.7 percent increase to the Center for Technology budget, and will increase CTE tuition by .89 percent to $17,000. Donahue said the district’s safety and security budget is also increasing by 93 percent to address some large projects as well as building capacity to keep students safe.

Voting on the school budget will take place April 9 at Essex High School and Essex Middle School, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.