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Easthampton school cuts predicted after failed override

From left, Easthampton High School Principal Vito Perrone, School Committee member Deb Lusnia, Easthampton School Superintendent Nancy Follansbee with Committee for Stronger Schools members Shelly Bathe-Lenn and Anastasia Hallisey react Tuesday at Apollo Grill to an announcement that the proposed $1.4 million Easthampton property tax override failed.

From left, Easthampton High School Principal Vito Perrone, School Committee member Deb Lusnia, Easthampton School Superintendent Nancy Follansbee with Committee for Stronger Schools members Shelly Bathe-Lenn and Anastasia Hallisey react Tuesday at Apollo Grill to an announcement that the proposed $1.4 million Easthampton property tax override failed. Purchase photo reprints »

— The day after voters defeated a $1.4 million property tax override for the city schools, school leaders met to take stock of the implications for the department’s budget.

For the current year, the measure’s loss means $255,000 that would have been used to restore three full-time teaching positions and classroom aides and to purchase textbooks and hire a new technology technician will not be forthcoming.

For the coming year, “we’re going to have to take a hard look and make more cuts,” Superintendent Nancy Follansbee said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s not a scenario we’re looking forward to.”

City voters rejected the Proposition 2½ property tax override by a vote of 4,816 to 3,878 Tuesday. The measure lost in four of the city’s five wards. It carried Ward 2 by a single vote: 813-812.

Follansbee said her department now faces the daunting task of closing a looming $900,000 budget deficit for next year without additional tax funds from the override.

“We’ll do the best we can as we’ve always done,” she said. “But I think the worst is yet to come with the gap we’re facing.”

School leaders had proposed the $1.4 million override to restore cuts made to balance this year’s budget, including 12 full-time staff positions and $36,000 in special education services. The additional tax funds were also slated for technology upgrades and world languages instruction, which were eliminated at White Brook Middle School this year to balance the budget.

In public forums and interviews at the polls Tuesday, many voters cited the added tax burden posed by the override as their reason for voting against the measure. Figures from the city treasurer’s office show it would have upped the annual tax bill for an average single-family home valued at $228,700 by $238.

Ward 5 City Councilor Daniel D. Rist said that while he supported the override, he sympathized with residents who felt the impact was too much for their household budgets.

“This vote is no way represents that taxpayers are dissatisfied with the schools,” he said. “They simply could not afford it.”

Rist said the measure might have succeeded had the schools requested half as much money.

“This is the second override we’ve tried in recent years,” he noted. “And both times they’ve failed. I think the residents are clearly saying you need to make ends meet.”

In 2004, city voters rejected an $874,000 property tax override for schools and municipal services by a vote of 4,705 to 3,377.

On the other hand, in 2010, voters approved an $18 million debt exclusion override for a new city high school by a margin of nearly 3-1.

Follansbee said she had no regrets about the amount of this year’s override request.

“It’s what we needed,” she said. “We know it’s a challenging time for many families. But this is the time that these children are going through our schools.”

In the coming weeks, school administrators will be asked to propose specific cuts in staff and programs that will be presented to school councils and eventually to the mayor and City Council, Follansbee said.

“This is a hard day,” she said. “We are at risk of not having the personnel to provide the kind of education our students need.”

Mayor Michael A. Tautznik said the city lacks the funds to close the $900,000 budget gap facing the schools next year.

“That far exceeds any increase we will see revenues,” said Tautznik, who supported the override question.

At the City Council’s Wednesday meeting, the mayor withdrew a request he made to City Council for $255,000 in additional funds for the schools this year that was based on voters approving the override. The council voted unanimously to remove the request from their agenda.

Instead, Tautznik said, “we will have to go through the process of further tightening our belts and doing more with less in our schools.”

Not everyone believes that task will lead to dire consequences for the schools.

City Council President Justin P. Cobb said statements by override supporters that the measure’s defeat would mean “dismantling” the school system, “are a little overdramatic.”

“I considered the $1.4 million as overreaching and I voted against it,” said Cobb, who is temporarily stepping down as council president while he undergoes a hip replacement.

While he credited the pro-override Committee for Stronger Schools with leading “a well organized and well done campaign,” Cobb said a majority of voters viewed the proposal as one they couldn’t afford, “especially with the new high school coming on board.”

Unlike the tax increase in a property tax override, the increase in the debt exclusion override for the high school goes away once the debt is paid.

Shelly Bathe-Lenn, an elementary school parent and member of the Committee for Stronger Schools, said garnering support for an override for school programs proved harder than for a building project.

“It’s not a tangible thing that people can touch,” she said, “It’s a more complicated argument.”

Fellow committee member Marin Goldstein pointed to a “divided leadership” in the city, with the mayor supporting the override but the City Council failing to endorse it, as the reason the measure failed.

Still, he stressed that Tuesday’s election results showed a significant number of city residents supported the idea of additional tax funds for the schools.

“Considering we had three months to work on a campaign, for us to get 45 percent of the vote is an amazing achievement,” Goldstein said.

He added that committee members plan to keep meeting and working to support the schools.

“For Easthampton, this can’t be the end of the story,” Goldstein said.

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