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Easthampton forum weighs $1.4 million override for schools 

Hosted by the School Committee and the citizens group Committee for Stronger Schools, the event drew a crowd of about 20 people to school headquarters to discuss the override measure that is on the ballot Nov. 6.

School Committee Chairman Peter Gunn, one of an eight-member panel of school and municipal leaders who answered questions from the public, framed the issue as a stark choice facing the community.

“Do you want to tread water or do you want to move forward?” he said.

Local resident Joe Farrick, who described himself as a disabled military veteran living on a fixed income, framed the issue differently.

“Treading water is a lot better than drowning,” he said. “And a lot of us are drowning right now.”

“There’s no question what this committee is saying about the schools is worthwhile,” Farrick added. “I’m just looking to you to live within your means.”

School leaders have said the $1.4 million proposed for the override is needed to restore cuts in teacher positions and special education programs made this year to balance the budget.

Funds raised through an override would also be used to invest in new programs, they say, including adding world languages starting in the elementary grades.

Cindy Cloutier, a music teacher at Maple School, described the scarce laptops and outdated textbooks in use in many of the elementary school classrooms.

“We have textbooks where kids are looking at pictures of kids dressed in the 1970s,” she said. “They’re looking at pictures of phones that don’t exist anymore.”

School Superintendent Nancy Follansbee said the override request was developed in response to surveys of parents whose children have left Easthampton for other districts, as well as input from local school councils.

“I can assure you we have looked at every economy,” she said. “Without the override, we’re going to face more cuts in the next school year.”

Figures from the mayor’s office put the impact of the override at $1 for each $1,000 of assessed property value in Easthampton. That means a resident with a home valued at $300,000 would pay an added $300 per year in taxes if voters approve the measure.

Local resident Jo Landers said that amount makes a big difference in her personal budget. She asked how upgrades in school technology would be paid for over the long term, given that “technology changes every year.”

Mayor Michael A. Tautznik, who was also on the panel, responded that the permanent tax increase contained in the override represents a long-term investment in the schools.

He noted that the amount Easthampton spends on tuition for city students who attend charter schools or other districts through school choice is the same as the amount called for in the override.

“That’s $1.4 million that leaves us now that could be here,” he said. “We need to get those kids back.”

Tamara Smith, a parent of five children in the Easthampton schools, said seeing the community approve the override would convince her to keep them there.

“I know it’s going to cost people a lot of money, but at the same time I want to know that I can count on my community to help me out,” she said.

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