The Essex Westford School Board heard a preliminary budget presentation from chief operating officer Brian Donahue last Tuesday at its first of several budget work sessions.

While Donahue didn’t share specific numbers about the budget or projected tax increases, he set the stage by explaining the needs the administration weighed in creating the initial proposal.

“The board really asked the administration to continue to be sensitive to the taxpayer and the promise of merger, while also continuing to provide the high quality education of where we can additional opportunities for students,” Donahue said.

A major priority this year is increasing equity for students, Donahue said, such as making instruction in classrooms accessible to all students without the need for as many “separate interventions,” he explained.

Other priorities included social and emotional learning, strengthening and expanding professional learning and safety and security.

One challenge to creating a school budget is the volatility that occurs on the state level, Donahue said. While the homestead education tax rate is currently projected to stay flat at $1.50 per $100 of assessed value, “things can change pretty dramatically,” he said.

The district has another year of merger tax incentives, which will lower the homestead rate by 6 cents, Donahue said.

The tax rate will also be impacted by the common level of appraisal, which dropped to 94.15 in Essex town and village and to 96.04 in Westford. Donahue said this will amplify the district’s tax rate, adding the administration will keep an eye on this factor if it continues to drop.

The state also considers equalized per pupils, or weighted average of the last two years of enrollment, in setting the tax rate. EWSD initially reported 3,799.6, but this has already increased since Donahue’s first presentation to the board, he said. This bodes well for EWSD taxpayers but could change as the legislature continues to work on the state budget.

The district has about $4.2 million in leftover fund balance. This includes $700,000 in transportation funds, the majority of which came from the district not providing transportation to the village. Another contributor was savings in healthcare, Donahue said.

The administration has proposed transferring $3.2 million in fund balance to the FY20 budget to lower spending and tax rates. The school board will decide what to do with the remaining $1 million. One proposal is investing in a master facility planning study to identify possible investment opportunities for the district.

Donahue said it may seem like a good idea to use the entire fund balance to lower the tax rate, but the district thinks it would be more prudent to consider long term planning.

“Everybody wants the lowest tax rate, but you have a big, low tax rate and then the next year, you have a big jump that sometimes is difficult for planning,” he said.

Other budget considerations include a 4.7 percent increase to salaries and benefits and an 8.6 percent increase in non-personnel costs.

No specific cuts or additions were presented at last week’s budget work session, but Donahue said no “substantive change” to teacher numbers at the K-8 level is expected due to the steady level of enrollment. There could be some changes at the high school level, but nothing out of the ordinary for the district, he said.

The board is scheduled to meet every week up until the first week in March to work on the budget.