Friday, March 15, 2002
School budget cuts stir emotions
Having wrestled with revenues, department budgets, and debt through dark winter nights in cozy obscurity at Town Hall, the finance committee and board of selectmen last Wednesday unexpectedly found themselves at center stage, literally in the spotlight. So many Carlisle school parents showed up at Town Hall that evening that fire chief Robert Koning declared the Clark Room beyond its capacity, and ordered the joint meeting to the school auditorium, where members sat on stage in the formal configuration more usual for Town Meeting than routine budget hearings.
'Tell the selectmen . . .'
The notice also said (erroneously) that "selectmen are meeting Wednesday March 6 to finalize the Town Meeting articles." In fact, final decisions on the Warrant and ballot questions will not be made until March 19.
Once reassembled in Corey Auditorium, much of the meeting was taken up with a review of the budget process and reports from the schools, police and fire departments on the effects of reductions in the FY03 budget. (See accompanying article.)
'Let the people decide'
Despite public comments by nearly all selectmen in favor of several override levels, offering a number of funding possibilities, most parents speaking at the meeting expressed concern that selectmen would fail to provide such choices. "Let the people decide," several parents told the selectmen, invoking "democracy" or the "democratic process" as the ideal way to settle budget issues. As Debbie Dawson of Autumn Lane put it,"I'd like to see us have some choice, so we can pick for ourselves what we're willing to spend money on."
School most important
Most citizens speaking also made it clear that the school was their highest priority, far greater than any other town department. "I moved to the town for the character of the town and for the schools," said Marc Szczesniak of Aberdeen Drive, echoing others' remarks. One parent even suggested that "most of what [the police] do is really not that important compared to the school," adding that one officer per shift would be enough to cover the town.
Parents also cited the appeal of the school to new residents and maintaining property values as justifications for supporting the budget increase.
Memories of a painful period in the early nineties, when the failure of a nearly $700,000 Proposition 2-1/2 override resulted in layoffs and drastic service cuts, haunted some at the meeting. As in the aftermatch of 1990, it will take years to rebuild what is lost if the promised reductions take place, warned Gettys and Maureen Tarca of Partridge Lane, who also recalled "animosities that divided the town."
Two parents asked what alternatives the school committee had considered to the reductions. In the words of Steve Opolski of Concord Street, "What was more painful than closing the library?" Carlisle School Superintendent Davida Fox-Melanson replied that the school committee had considered and rejected cutting the following:
Opolski also questioned the salary increases for teachers, which the school committee's budget document reported to be four percent, with additional educational incentives, step increases, changes in grade, and early retirement costs.
[Some] parents willing to pay
A few parents seemed eager to pay tax increases to maintain "quality." Even the current enrollment configuration "compromises" class size, and for the sake of keeping class sizes low, "I'm willing to feel the pain in my pocketbook," commented Jean Colbert of Autumn Lane . "We can't afford not to vote for these overrides . . . we deserve it and our kids deserve it," another insisted.
Parents on their own can contribute money to restore what would be cut, several suggested. According to Jeff Dinardo of Palmer Way, "The first thing I thought of is to get the checkbook out." Donations from "a couple hundred" people could make a difference in saving these programs, he added.
But such donations have dropped considerably in the last few years, replied Jeff Brown of Cutter's Ridge Road, president of the Carlisle Education Foundation (CEF), a fundraising entity formed to supplement school services following the failed 1990 override. If CEF, which tries to provide for new programs beyond what "should be in the school budget," agrees to restore these cuts, they would be taking a chance that the drop in donations would reverse itself, Brown said.
Jay Luby of Woodbine Road later commented that writing checks to supplement the school budget would be "unrealistic," instead exhorting those in attendance to contact twenty people to attend Town Meeting, "because those who disagree will show up."
Not enough communication?
Town officials should provide more information about the budgeting process, Brown continued. It would be "useful to see . . . some of the tradeoffs that you've made." To selectman Doug Stevenson's comment that the FinCom goes over every town budget "in excruciating detail" at weekly public meetings from December through March, Brown answered that it was a question of communication and understanding the process.
Stevenson asked the audience "to recognize not only your hopes and desires for your own children but also [how that] conflicts ... with other people, who desire to remain living in the town where they brought up their children" (rather than a ten percent increase in the value of their property). These citizens "subsidize the costs of school" for those with children, and if they are driven out by high tax increases within a short period of time, "you will be paying full freight for your children in school," he said.
This year selectmen need to consider what a reasonable tax increase would be, Stevenson added. Selectmen have to think about helping people stay in town "who are not here tonight," who are having a hard time paying taxes, selectmen Tim Hult added.
"We're not going to let that happen"
Hult recalled an earlier meeting in the same auditorium, "entirely filled and overflowing," after the 1990 override failed, when "we had to fire 17 people from a professional staff of 55." (Hult was chair of the school committee at the time.) But, he assured parents, "we're not going to let that happen to your schools. We're not going to go for a huge override like the one that failed." The school will survive and continue to be good, he promised.
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito