Easthampton residents weigh costs, benefits of proposed $1.4 million property tax override for schools
Members of the Committee for Stronger Schools analyze Easthampton maps to organize door-to-door efforts in support of the Override Saturday.
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Easthampton School Committee member LaDonna Crow (Right) speaks with a resident about the Override Saturday in Easthampton as fellow volunteer Ingrid Flory (Left) rings another doorbell.
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A sign on Lori LaCourse's front yard reads "Vote NO on Override" in Easthampton. LaCourse, whose children do not attend Easthampton public schools, does not want to see her taxes go up.
JOSH KUCKENS Purchase photo reprints »
Easthampton School Committee member LaDonna Crow, right, speaks with a resident Saturday about the $1.4 million property tax Proposition 2 1/2 override for the schools on Tuesday's ballot. JOSH KUCKENS Purchase photo reprints »
Easthampton School Committee member LaDonna Crow, right, speaks with a resident about the $1.4 million property tax Proposition 2 1/2 override for the schools on Tuesday's ballot. Ingrid Flory, another override supporter, rings a doorbell at left. JOSH KUCKENS Purchase photo reprints »
EASTHAMPTON — As a longtime real estate agent and city resident, Bob Canon says he’s learned that good schools are important in drawing people to the community.
That’s why he favors the $1.4 million property tax override for the schools that voters will decide Tuesday.
“As a real estate agent, I like to have the community offer the very best it can,” said Canon, who is president of Canon Real Estate and has grandchildren attending city schools. “The schools are absolutely a huge priority.”
But Canon stressed that he also sympathizes with residents who say they cannot afford a permanent tax increase right now.
“It’s tough for people on fixed incomes,” he said. “It’s a very personal decision. It really comes down to whether the community thinks it can afford it.”
Mayor Michael A. Tautznik said much the same when asked whether he believes voters will approve the override measure, Question 4 on the ballot.
“I can’t think of a person I’ve talked to who doesn’t agree that the expenditures being asked for are necessary,” said Tautznik, who supports the override. “What they’ve talked about is their ability to pay.”
School leaders and other override supporters say rejecting the measure would cost city residents more in the long run.
“The community is going to suffer if more families choose to leave, literally or emotionally, our school system,” said School Committee Chairman Peter Gunn. “To continue to compete, we have to invest.”
School Superintendent Nancy Follansbee pointed to an estimated $900,000 budget gap for the schools already looming for 2014. “We have asked the community for support for our schools but it’s really about asking them to save the schools,” she said. “We’ve tried to do the best we can with what we have, but without adequate funding, we are going to have to start dismantling the school system.”
Arguments on both sides of the issue have intensified in the final days before the election. Residents have set up lawn signs and written letters to the editor. Members of the Committee for Stronger Schools, which is leading the pro-override campaign, have vowed to knock on 7,000 doors in Easthampton before Tuesday’s vote.
A second public forum on the override is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday at in the music room of White Brook Middle School.
Marin Goldstein, an elementary school parent and a member of the Committee for Stronger Schools, said he hopes residents will come to that meeting with questions.
“It’s a great opportunity to find out, is there fluff or waste or is this funding really urgent?” he said. “People need to know what the trajectory is for our schools and what will happen if the override is not passed.”
The proposed override would add $1.025 to each $1,000 of assessed property value in Easthampton once it is fully implemented, according to the city treasurer’s office. Based on anticipated tax rates and other surcharges, for the average single-family home valued at $228,700, the impact would be $238.38 in additional taxes, bringing this year’s annual tax bill of $3,086.08 to $3,324.46.
Tautznik said the cost of the override would be “phased in” over two years to lessen the immediate burden on city residents.
He has requested that $255,000 of the $1.4 million be appropriated this fiscal year to restore school math and reading specialist positions that were cut to balance the schools budget. The impact of that amount would be 18 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, or an average of $41.69 in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2013, according to the treasurer’s office.
In the next fiscal year ending June 30, 2014, the tax impact of the override would rise to $1.025 per $1,000 of assessed property value, according to the treasurer’s office.
Floryan Walaszek, a retired city police officer, said that’s too much for his household budget.
“I’m a senior on a fixed income and we just can’t afford it,” said Walaszek, who has a “Vote No” sign on the lawn in front of his West Street home. “These requests are getting out of hand. With the timing of this, I’m against it.”
Michael Buehrle, chairman of the Easthampton High School Building Committee, said he’s also heard criticism of the timing for the override, coming just two years after voters overwhelmingly approved an $18 million debt exclusion override to build a new city high school.
“That was not a permanent increase and I think that’s the big problem with this one,” Buehrle said. “I would have liked them not to ask for so much at one time.”
The tax increase under a debt exclusion override for a new building ends once the debt is paid.
School leaders insist they had no choice but to ask for an override now, given the impact of shrinking state aid to education and a stalled economy that has meant level funding from the city.
Per-pupil expenditures of $12.25 in Easthampton are below the Massachusetts average of $13.36, according to the latest figures available from the state.
Gunn said that the $1.4 million proposed in the override is almost the same amount the city schools are now losing when Easthampton students leave to attend charter schools or choose to enroll in other communities through the state’s school-choice option.
Follansbee said parents surveyed about why their children left the schools cite the absence of foreign language instruction and outdated technology — two items the override will fund.
If the override is approved, $822,456 would be used to restore 12 full-time staff positions and $36,000 in special education services that were cut from the budget, school leaders say. Another $484,000 would be used for technology upgrades, world languages teachers, after-school programs and student support services.
School Committee member Deb Lusnia, who helped organize the successful campaign for the high school debt exclusion override in 2010, said she is concerned that there has not been enough time to inform the public about the need for the override.
“Even in the time the campaign has been taking place, things have gotten worse for the school district,” she said. “My hope is citizens will know we wouldn’t be asking for this override unless it was necessary.”
Peter Marks, chairman of the Committee for Stronger Schools, believes the campaign will succeed if residents view the override as needed for community building.
“It’s for Easthampton, not the schools alone,” he said. “We have a really great future if we can invest.”
Canon, the real estate agent, sees valid arguments on both sides. “It’s a tough issue,” he said. “You want to do what you can for the next generation. But for a lot of people, incomes are down.”