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Editorial: Lessons of the override vote

On Nov. 6, voters in Easthampton defeated a bid — by a 4,816-3,878 margin — for a $1.4 million Proposition 2½ property tax override that school leaders had sought to restore cuts to staff and programs over the last few years and invest in new programs.

Supporters of the measure faced two significant hurdles: a short time frame — about three months — to persuade voters to support a tax hike despite tight economic times, and the difficulty of explaining a complex issue well enough to inspire voters to back it.

Ultimately, these obstacles proved too challenging.

But we feel those advocating for the override and those who opposed it deserve credit for engaging in a civil, community-minded campaign that never devolved into the kind of nasty politicking we’ve seen on the national level.

Override proponents tried their best to convince Easthampton’s citizens, holding forums, publishing letters in local newspapers, holding rallies and going door to door.

The basis for the override, in our view, was valid: The school system’s budget has been hard hit in recent years by cuts in local and state funding, leading to the loss of teaching positions and educational programs. If the override had passed, $822,456 would have been used to restore 12 full-time staff positions as well as special education services. An additional $585,000 would have been used to make technology improvements and establish world language instruction beginning in the elementary grades.

These are not frills or extras. In the wake of the measure’s defeat, the school system must close a $900,000 budget gap for the next fiscal year, leaving administrators looking at tough choices.

At the same time, opponents of the measure also had understandable objections — that the additional strain higher taxes would put on people’s pocketbooks was too burdensome for some, especially those on fixed incomes and those still struggling from the effects of the recession.

To convince these voters to support the override called for a prolonged and intense campaign explaining why the money was needed and how the measure’s defeat would affect the schools and the community at large.

People may have been more likely to back the measure had they been persuaded of its long-term benefits, including how a top-performing school system can impact property values and the financial gains that can come from an increase in school choice students enrolling in Easthampton schools.

Despite the information sessions, some voters remained unclear about how the override would affect their yearly taxes. Timing was also a factor. The 2010 debt exclusion override for the new high school was cited by numerous voters as the reason they rejected the Nov. 6 override. As one city native put it, “You’ve asked for enough. ... No more overrides until this building is paid for.”

The city has had varied support for overrides in the past. Citizens approved the debt exclusion measure for the high school two years ago, but soundly defeated another property tax override to fund schools and municipal services in 2004. So it’s a good sign that the Committee for Strong Schools, which led the effort to pass the $1.4 million override, plans to continue its work in some form.

In the short term, that committee can help school leaders with the hard decisions they face in the wake of the override’s defeat. In the long term, the group can establish a sustained conversation with Easthampton citizens about what it takes to maintain and improve the city’s schools. Regular outreach, in the form of forums, televised question-and-answer sessions or other measures, are needed to convince people that the schools’ health is cause for everyone’s concern.

Forging that consensus must be an ongoing project, a discussion that should not be put off until the next override is on the ballot.

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