WESTFORD — Welcome to the June 19 edition of Weekend Wrap-Up. Here, we highlight the most important news you may have missed this week in Westford.
Even rain can’t get in the way of one of Westford’s beloved festivals.
The Strawberry N’ Arts Festival, after a last minute delay from its original date on Saturday due to rain, opened to extensive fanfare on June 18.
In lieu of full coverage, WestfordCAT snapped a few photos of some of the many displays and vendors.
The 47th Strawberry N’ Arts Festival hosted dozens of vendors, musicians and displays. The event is hosted by the First Parish Church United.
The Middlesex County District Attorney’s office has released a community interaction form to report incidents motivated by hate or bias.
The Westford Police Department met with the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee on April 28 to discuss two recent incidents and how DEI can collaborate with WPD on reports in the future.
The DEI Committee discussed how to handle the potential outcomes of future Hate/Bias incidents.
“If someone is out there saying things, [even] if it’s not caught on camera…the fear it can instill in people is still, I think, a safety issue,” DEI member Anita Tonakarn-Nguyen said.
So far, the DEI Committee and WPD have collaborated on providing documents, forms, and links on the Westford Police Department website. This includes the hate/bias form page, complaint forms and procedures, and links to directly contact Chief Chambers. A list of the WPD’s downloadable forms can be found here.
“Chief Chambers received feedback from the DEI Committee and took recommendations regarding which Westford Police Department policies and procedures should be made available on-line on the WPD website to promote transparency and accountability,” Administrative Captain James Peloquin told WestfordCAT in an email.
Peloquin also noted that Chief Chambers has attended multiple DEI meetings and plans to host a Q&A session with the DEI Committee “to promote transparency” between the WPD and Westford community. Dates for these sessions have not been announced at the time of reporting.
Considering the connection the WPD has with the WPS, DEI also discussed how they could collaborate with both groups regarding anti-bias education, and “make this a teachable moment” for the community.
“In terms of our [DEI’s] role and in terms of being able to bring this to light, that could have a positive effect, almost a preventative effect,” DEI Co-Chair Joe Diamond said. “Can it be considered a teachable moment for the schools to provide information…that this [event] happened? And an opportunity for us to take a step in terms of raising awareness and prevention?”
Currently, Stony Brook Middle School hosts an Anti-Defamation League World of Difference Program. Students are trained to be peer leaders and taught an anti-bias curriculum.
“It’s doing that training of helping our students understand how to honor and respect differences [and] what a respectful community looks like,” Westford School Committee Chair Chris Sanders said. “I want there to be more and I think there’s lots of [other] ways we can infuse it.”
Restorative practices have also been introduced to guide students through “challenging but important conversations, teaching them how to be empathetic, to be caring, [and] how to listen,” as stated by Sanders.
Westford Academy works with consultant Dr. Michele Shannon, who hosts conversations and open forums with students after school on DEI issues. Bernadin also visits elementary and middle schools to present PowerPoint presentations on cyberbullying and harassment.
“I know in the schools, especially at Westford Academy, we do take DEI conversations very seriously,” Bernadin said.
However, the schools still face a problem of low student engagement within their own DEI programs, and the DEI Committee offered their assistance in further developing these programs.
“I hear a lot of feedback from my middle-schooler that there is so much resistance within the kids. They are there, but they are mentally not present,” said DEI Co-Chair Anjali Rajput. “Maybe this is an opportunity for us to look into existing programs within the schools…so we can strengthen the core values of the kids within the communities.”
The DEI Committee also suggested sharing similar resources on their own website and advertising community events in town to further extend the anti-bias and anti-hate messages of WPS.
“That’s what we’re here to do. To help make those bridges and help extend those communication channels,” Tonakarn-Nguyen said.
Where and How to Report an Incident
The bias form can be filled out through a downloadable form available on their website or through an online reporting form to the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office. It has been available to all police officers since May 4, 2021.
When filling out a report, incidents can be categorized as either a hate crime or a Hate/Bias incident.
“By making this form available to all residents we offer a direct link for residents to report incidents even if they do not want to report or deal directly with the Westford Police Department,” Administrative Captain James Peloquin said in a statement to Westford CAT. “We feel [it] is beneficial to the town of Westford to give residents multiple options…Any reports of bias or hate crimes reported to the Westford Police Department are always investigated completely.”
10 Westford students have received awards for their college education from the Scholarship and Grant Committee.
84 applicants applied for $10,000 in awards from the committee, which oversees Scholarship Fund and Arts and Technology Fund.
Nine students from Westford Academy and one student from Nashoba Valley Technical High School each received a $1,000 award. A scholarship committee from each school distributes awards to students based on their merit and financial need.
Ceremonies were held on May 28 for Nashoba Tech and May 31 for Westford Academy.
Westford Academy recipients
Joshua Bearfield – Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Kyle Fan – Case Western Reserve University
Josh Forty – Marquette University
Ben Jones – Bentley University
Sophia Keang – University of Pennsylvania
Kiersten O’Connell – University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill)
Ava Sidelinger – Suffolk University
Madison Walsh – Stony Brook University
Ande Xin – University of Massachusetts Amherst
Nashoba Tech recipient
Chloe Greenslade – Merrimack College
The nonprofit Strides for Sotelo held its first 5k memorial run in honor of Emily Sotelo, a member of Westford Academy’s Class of 2021.
Michelle Sotelo, sister of Emily Sotelo, organized the 5k as a way to “hold on to the memories” she shared with her sister.
“I want[ed] it to be something…to celebrate what we shared in common as the two active people in our life, and it’s how I stayed close to her.” Michelle Sotelo said. “This was something we could always go back to.”
With no prior experience of organizing a 5k, Michelle Sotelo asked Ashley Smith, a German teacher at WA, and her friend Chandra Thay for help. Together they mapped out the trail, found sponsors, and designed the website themselves.
“Although I don’t have any prior experience putting on a race like this, I’m always looking for ways to get involved with Westford Academy and just the Westford community in general. And I mean, how can you say no to Michelle? … She asked me and it was a no brainer,” Smith said.
Westford residents and WA students alike attended in support of Michelle Sotelo and her family.
“My family was really touched by the story of Emily [Sotelo]. It’s a great cause and it’s a win-win you get to run a race and support this great family,” Srivas Arun, Westford Academy student said.
Smith added, “It means a lot [to have people show up]. It says a lot about Westford Academy as a school and Westford as a town that so many people wanted to come out and support Michelle and her idea and help bring it to life.”
All profits from the event go toward a scholarship in Emily Sotelo’s name. Any excess will be given to the New Hampshire Search and Rescue Team and Dream Diné, a Navajo reservation the Sotelo sisters previously worked at.
The event was held on June 11. To donate to or learn more about the Emily M. Sotelo Safety and Persistence Charitable Foundation visit this page.
With a Dec. 31, 2024 deadline to allocate the remaining American Rescue Plan Act funds looming, the Select Board has allocated over 70% of the remaining funds dispersed to the town.
Among these items, $95,000 was used to fund an economic development consultant.
The funding request from the Economic Development Committee was originally intended to fund a new position, but officials opted to use funds to hire a consultant due to budgetary concerns.
“My concern is what happens when there are no more funds and we have to get this in the budget and if we don’t get this in the budget we would lose the position, said Select Board member Andrea Peraner-Sweet during a June 6 meeting.
Select Board Vice Chair Scott Hazelton added that “laying off a consultant is different from laying off a town employee.”
The service is “designed to end,” and would be designed with “a scope that after two years, we’ve got the information, we’ve got the map, we’ve got the needs of the community,” according to Select Board Chair Tom Clay.
Among surrounding cities and towns such as Chelmsford, Tyngsborough, Carlisle, Lowell, and Billerica, Westford is the only town without a permanent economic development position.
The primary goal of a future position would be to serve as the “single integral point of contact between the Westford business owner and town government,” Economic Development Committee member Alexander Mancuso said during a May 9 Select Board Meeting.
“In my view, Westford could be doing more to both grow its existing businesses and to attract new businesses here in the town,” said Mancuso.
To do so, the committee believes Westford must improve the speed and relevance with which it communicates with its businesses. It must also grow its tax base and adjust its distribution profile to be more sustainable for the long term, a move that “is critical” according to Mancuso.
From 2018 to 2022, Westford’s commercial and industrial tax base fell by eight percent. The tax-base distribution is now split with 88% of property taxes coming from residential properties while just 12% comes from commercial properties.
In comparison, other cities and towns target an 80% residential and 20% commercial split in these areas, according to Mancuso.
There is also a risk of overreliance on residential development within Westford to grow this tax base, which would draw on the town’s limited land resources.
“We’ve got to know that municipalities with which we do business are welcoming of our investment and are going to be in our corner as we seek to drive growth in our cities and towns,” said Mancuso. “Right now, all of Westford’s competing municipalities have an individual, or staff, that serves this purpose. Westford does not.”
New contract amendments have been finalized for the Blanchard roof replacement project.
The School Committee voted unanimously to authorize the Superintendent of Schools to execute two contract amendments for the design and construction of the project.
Blanchard Middle School was originally built in 1992 with renovations in 1998. It has historically had a “troubled roof” according to Director of Facilities Jeff Goodwin.
“Blanchard Middle School has been plagued by roof leaks for the past several years and there have been a number of losses in the building over that time,” Goodwin told WestfordCAT on April 26. “That has contributed to the town having higher insurance deductibles during that time.”
Various inspections were conducted on the roof systems, drainage, edges, and access throughout 2022. Cracks were found in the building’s walls and the slope design of some roofs prevents proper draining.
It is also recommended that the draining systems be replaced and reconnected to existing storm drain ceilings in addition to the roof.
The Blanchard Middle School Roof Replacement Project was first passed during the 2023 Annual Town Meeting and will cost $6.5 million. Up to 48.05% of that funding could be offset by a grant from the Massachusetts School Building Authority.
“The grant will total about $2.5 million. It’s a huge saving to approve this today,” Goodwin said.
The project will begin in the summer of 2024 and will conclude ahead of the school year.