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Easthampton handily defeats school override measure

  • From left, Committee for Stronger Schools members Shelly Bathe-Lenn, Anastasia Hallisey and Marin Goldstein share a hug Tuesday at Apollo Grill in Easthampton after learning that the proposed $1.4 million Easthampton property tax override failed.

    From left, Committee for Stronger Schools members Shelly Bathe-Lenn, Anastasia Hallisey and Marin Goldstein share a hug Tuesday at Apollo Grill in Easthampton after learning that the proposed $1.4 million Easthampton property tax override failed. Purchase photo reprints »

  • 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 »

  • From left, Committee for Stronger Schools members Shelly Bathe-Lenn, Anastasia Hallisey and Marin Goldstein share a hug Tuesday at Apollo Grill in Easthampton after learning 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.

The override measure, Question 4 on the ballot, failed by an vote of 4,816 to 3,878, a margin of just over 10 percent. It lost in four of the city’s five precincts, carrying precinct 2 by one vote: 813 to 812. Precinct 5 defeated the measure with the biggest margin of all the precincts, with a vote of 1,248 against to 652 in favor.

At an election night gathering at the Apollo Grill, members of the Committee for Stronger Schools, which led the pro-override campaign, cited the tough economy as the main reason for its defeat at the polls.

“I think it comes down to the money,” said committee member Ingrid Fleury, after sharing the ballot results with the group. “Going door to door, what I heard again and again was that families felt they couldn’t afford it.”

Mayor Michael A. Tautznik, who supported the override, stopped in at the restaurant gathering. He agreed with that analysis.

“I didn’t speak to a single voter who felt this was a frivolous request,” he said. “What I heard was it was just a matter of affordability.”

Tautznik praised the efforts of override supporters over the past few months.

“This lost by about 10 percent, which is a very respectable showing,” he said. “Now, we’ll need to continue to tighten our belts and try to get through this.”

School leaders had asked for the $1.4 million in additional tax money to restore cuts in staff and programs made in recent years and to invest in technology and world languages — two items they said parents cite as reasons for leaving the city schools.

At a public form on the override last week, School Superintendent Nancy Follansbee pointed to an estimated $900,000 budget gap for the schools already looming for 2014 and warned that without additional funding, “we’re going to have to start dismantling the school system.”

Such arguments clearly resonated with some voters.

Interviewed at the Easthampton High School polling site on Tuesday, city resident Ben Taylor, 28, said he voted for the override because “I see need to invest in our local school infrastructure.”

But others cited the increased tax burden as the reason they were casting votes against the ballot question.

“I’m a senior citizen, I’m 92 years old, how much money can I give?” said Walter Sliz, who was voting at White Brook Middle School.

“A lot of people in Easthampton are on fixed incomes,” said Gail Tilton, who was voting at the EHS polling site. “They can’t afford more taxes.”

The proposed override would have added $1.025 to each $1,000 of assessed property value in Easthampton, according to the city treasurer’s office. For the average single-family home valued at $228,700, that would mean an additional $238.38 in annual taxes.

Some voters said the timing of the override proposal, coming just two years after voters approved an $18 million debt exclusion override to build a new city high school, was also problematic.

“You’ve asked for enough,” city native Terry Osetek told school leaders at last week’s public forum. “No more overrides until this building is paid for.”

The tax increase under a debt exclusion override for a new building ends once the debt is paid.

Support for overrides has historically been mixed in Easthampton. Two years ago, citizens approved the high school building override by a margin of nearly 3-1. But in 2004, they overwhelmingly rejected an $874,000 property tax override to fund schools and municipal services by a vote of 4,705 to 3,377.

Responding to the results of Tuesday’s balloting, Peter Marks, chair of the Committee for Stronger Schools said, “It’s clearly a disappointment. But we’re still hopeful we can find a way to help the schools.”

School Committee member Deborah Lusnia, who attended the Apollo Grill gathering, said school leaders must now work to communicate current budget challenges to the public.

“I think if everyone understood how desperately this funding was needed, they would have passed it,” she said. “The goal in the future is to make sure the community really understands what we’re facing.”

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