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Editorial: Easthampton override request a household-by-household call

Downtown Easthampton

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One thing is certain as Election Day nears in Easthampton: Both sides in the debate over a $1.4 million override request for the school system are telling the truth. For supporters, the request is of absolute necessity for a system struggling with shrinking state and local funding that leaders say poses a threat to its viability.

For opponents, the strain on their pocketbooks is real. Many taxpayers, especially those on fixed incomes, are struggling to make ends meet and haven’t fully recovered from the recession. More taxes will place a further burden on them.

Mayor Michael A. Tautznik, an override supporter, correctly points out that a household’s ability to pay the additional tax is at the crux of the debate.

Few question the challenges the schools face thanks to years of declining state aid and little growth in local tax revenues. Ironically, the $1.4 million in the override request is about the same amount the schools are now losing when Easthampton students leave to attend schools in other communities.

While no one wants to see a weakened school system, it’s hard to argue with someone who looks at their pocketbook and says they simply can’t afford it.

This issue truly is a household-by-household call. Property owners who can afford the additional $238 a year (for an average single-family home valued at $228,700) would be wise to vote yes on the measure for all of the reasons override backers have stated in the last several months.

Two letters to the editor on the facing page today, both in support of the override, clearly outline what’s at stake. Peter Gunn, who leads Easthampton’s School Committee, says the choice is between building the foundation of a stronger school system or settling for less.

The Gazette has published letters from override opponents and will provide additional community comment on the issue Saturday.

In essence, officials are asking residents to save the schools. Superintendent Nancy Follansbee predicts that the city will have to start dismantling the school system if the request fails, especially given that the schools are facing an additional $900,000 budget gap next fiscal year. If approved, the override would restore 12 full-time staff positions and special education services cut from the current budget, as well as invest in technology upgrades, world language teachers, after-school programs and student support services school leaders say are needed to take the schools to the next level.

Gunn and others make the case that unless the city renews its investment in its schools, more and more families will use school choice to move to classrooms elsewhere, worsening the budget picture. On the flip side, steps to rehire staff and rebuild programs may be able to reduce pupil flight and put money back into the system that doesn’t have to be paid to outside districts.

We also understand why some property owners will vote no on the additional tax. These voters point out they have seen their taxes go up in recent years, most recently with approval of a $18 million debt exclusion override in 2010 to build a new high school.

We’ve heard from people who supported the override for the new high school but feel they can’t afford a tax increase now.

To undecided voters on the override, if there are any, we say this: This will be money well spent — and must continue to be allocated to the schools.

Unlike the earlier high school debt-exclusion override, which was limited in scope and goes away when the project is paid for, next week’s override request would be a permanent property tax increase. It should not be seen as a Band-aid, but as a long-term investment that will help young people come out of school better prepared for further study and productive work.

Whatever happens on Election Day, these school issues aren’t going away. If voted down, city and school leaders will still need to work hard to maintain a solid school system, including figuring out how to fund it.

Should voters give the schools the funds requested, the School Committee and school leaders need to be ready and eager to show results in the coming years.

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