Friday, October 27, 2000
Bus fees ignite FinCom-school committee debate
"Philosophy" trumped finance at the October 18 finance committee meeting, as selectmen, the superintendent of the Carlisle Schools, and the school committee chair hotly debated the wisdom and necessity of perpetuating school bus fees by establishing a revolving fund for their collection. The finance committee insisted upon the importance of departments operating within their budgets, while the school defended its right to collect additional fees. This was the most controversial of the Warrant articles considered for recommendation by the FinCom in preparation for the November 14 Special Town Meeting.
Fees as revenue
The meeting was plunged into controversy as FinCom member Tony Allison questioned the school committee's use of a new school bus fee to compensate for a reduction in last year's school budget. A fee of $50 was instituted for all seventh- and eighth-grade bus riders as well as any student living closer than two miles, as the crow flies, to the school. Allison explained that the Massachusetts Department of Revenue counts "user fees," such as the bus fee, as town revenue when certifying the town's tax rate. Thus, the town tax receipts had to be lowered by $30,000 to account for the bus fees.
"Was the school budget budgeted net of those fees?" asked Allison. "Are we not programming in an automatic $30,000 overrun of the budget at this point?"
School committee chair Paul Morrison explained, "The selectmen agonized on how to close the gap. We closed it by a fee arrangement. We weren't doing anything slick."
FinCom chair Simon Platt tried to bring the discussion around to what he perceived to be the fundamentals. "I see three pieces [to the discussion]. First is this year and the $30,000 [collected fees], then the proposed article for the revolving fund with a more permanent effect, and then a more philosophical point -- what it is that a budget means."
School Superintendent Davida Fox-Melanson addressed the FinCom in defense of the district's position. "Of all the people who understood what the problem was, you folks do. Public schools should not be run on private fees, it's absolutely odious. I never had the intention to do this without the proper oversight; it is really upsetting."
Morrison defended his committee as well. "People thought we could do the fees instead of taking out an extra $58,000 or $30,000 dollars from free cash. FinCom plays a valuable role, but now I feel like I'm being taken out to the woodshed."
Allison tried to clarify the FinCom's position in turn. "We thought you [the school committee] were going to spend $58,000 less. You really didn't cut your budget, whereas other department budgets were reduced."
Morrison expressed his hope that "by the time we get to spring, we will know a lot more about the whole financial picture."
Fox-Melanson was less satisfied with the meeting. "It was never our intention to do this clandestinely. I feel like I'm being chastised. I would like to make that go away if I can."
At last, the FinCom voted to omit the words "bus fees" from Article 8, leaving intact the less controversial 53E revolving account for full-day kindergarten fees.
The Finance Committee voted unanimously to recommend Articles 2 through 5. (See story on page ??) but declined to take a position on Article 7 on the town's membership in the Central Massachusetts Mosquito Control Project.
© 2000 The Carlisle Mosquito