Friday, April 12, 2002
CCHS budget a game of chance
A "crap shoot," one participant has called the process of deciding the budget for Concord-Carlisle Regional School District for next year, and indeed, the situation does look as if at least one party has decided to bet that voters will decide in their favor.
Predicting how the FY03 funding for the Concord-Carlisle Regional School District will be settled this spring is like trying to guess how and when a poker game will end. Though some funds will eventually pass from the two towns to the school, it is impossible to predict at this point how much this might be, how many rounds this "pot" will be in play, and whether any party might emerge a winner. Cards will be dealt to the selectmen and the regional school committee (RSC), the major players, in the form of votes at Town Meetings and elections, and a possible joint Town Meeting between the towns of Concord and Carlisle.
This year it seems equally likely that the game could end with the joint Town Meeting or in any number of other ways: a special Carlisle Town Meeting and/or Carlisle election, budget cuts at the Carlisle School or other town departments forced by a failed override, Carlisle selectmen taking advantage of extra room within the levy limit to avoid other problems, or the RSC lowering its budget request to avoid further confrontation. (See box)
What if the two towns don't agree?
The situation seems more fluid than usual at this point in the budget cycle, partly because leaders in the two towns have not offered voters the same set of funding levels. Rather, Carlisle voters will decide on two possible levels, only one of which (the no-override budget) matches one of Concord's four possible choices. (A third Carlisle Town Meeting article could give Carlisle Selectmen some flexibility in matching the budget recommended by the Concord FinCom, should Concord voters approve that level.) (For more on the choices to be presented, see "What's at stake in the CCHS budget pot?".)
This incongruence between ballot choices increases the chance that the towns will vote different budgets, sparking another round of Town Meetings and elections to try to match budget numbers. If this second round fails, the regional school committee can convene a "joint" Special Town Meeting, open to registered voters of both towns, where a majority of those present will approve a final budget for the school, with no further Proposition 2-1/2 override vote necessary.
First round: Town Meetings
The joint Town Meeting is just one possible outcome among several, and at this time not even the most likely. The game could end after the first round, which begins with Concord's Town Meeting April 22 through 29 and continues with Carlisle town meeting on May 6 (and possibly May 7). These two Town Meetings might somewhat reduce the confusion, if voters eliminate one or more choices.
However, even if both towns vote the same budget at their Town Meetings, if a Proposition 2-1/2 override is required, the two town elections, held on May 14, will be critical. To take effect, all but the "levy limit" or "no-override" budgets must be appropriated at Town Meeting, then funded by a Proposition 2-1/2 override.
The second round
Once the two towns vote the same budget at both Town Meetings and the town election, the game is over. If not, the towns have another round to try to agree. At this point the regional school committee and selectmen of the town voting the lower budget face decisions about how to proceed, and predicting how the game might end becomes "murky," in the words of FinCom member David Trask.
At several points during this phase the RSC has the option to accept the lower level, vote a different budget, and end the game. Or, the Carlisle Selectmen might call a special Carlisle Town Meeting and special election to see if Carlisle voters will use a second opportunity to approved the Concord level. Alternatively, provided Town Meeting had approved the higher amount, selectmen might decide to reduce other town budgets to make the payment to the high school, rather than calling a special election.
Another choice for the RSC, if Carlisle fails to match Concord's approved budget, is to convene the joint Town Meeting (referred to as a "district" meeting) to decide on the budget. Last spring Carlisle town counsel Paul deRensis, who experienced a similar joint Town Meeting to set a budget for his town's regional high school, warned leaders of both towns the meeting could be a "free-for-all," settled by which town can pack more of its citizens into the meeting.
$107K up their sleeve
This year Carlisle Selectmen thought they had a card up their sleeve to help them avoid the joint meeting (as well as a Carlisle special election, or reducing budgets). The town's "levy limit" the maximum taxes the town may raise without a Proposition 2-1/2 override is actually about $107,000 more than the amount of taxes planned in next year's balanced budget. This "excess levy capacity" would allow selectmen to pay for a higher assessment without an override.
(Such excess capacity results when voters approve an override that permanently raises the levy limit of the town, without an appropriation by Town Meeting to spend the additional funds raised. For instance, if a proposal to buy a truck with operating funds were defeated at Town Meeting but the override to pay for it were approved at town election, in future years the town could use the rise in the levy limit to increase expenses without another Proposition 2-1/2 ballot vote.)
Selectmen had hoped that if the Concord FinCom recommended budget were approved by Concord voters, passage of the article appropriating money under those conditions, plus the town's excess levy capacity, would permit them to raise taxes to pay the higher assessment without scheduling a special election. However, they recently learned that they might instead be forced to raise taxes to the levy limit to cover a possible deficit from this year's anticipated shortfall in state aid for the current fiscal year.
Moreover, how much that deficit might be, whether it will swallow the excess levy capacity or be excluded from the Proposition 2-1/2 levy limit, and when the town will learn the answer to these questions, are at the whim of the state house and legislature, and may not be known until after the start of the next fiscal year.
'Better . . . than guessing'
So selectmen may not be able to play the excess levy capacity card to avoid the joint Town Meeting. Past town officials have been wary of such a meeting, believing that Carlisle has little power given Concord's 3-1/2 to 1 advantage in the number of registered voters. Moreover, because the vote of a joint Town Meeting obligates both towns to pay the cost of supporting the budget approved, automatically overriding Proposition 2-1/2 limits, leaders have worried about the risk that voters could decide on an even higher regional budget than originally voted. Selectmen John Ballantine and Tim Hult have also expressed concerns about such a meeting being "divisive."
Nonetheless, this year FinCom members seem to anticipate a joint Town Meeting with equanimity. "I don't think Concord is capable of stacking the meeting," said member Trask at the March 25 FinCom meeting, when the committee voted 5 to 1 against recommending Carlisle's higher "7 percent" override, and took no position on the citizens' petition article that might fund the budget at the Concord FinCom guideline.
A joint Town Meeting might as well determine funding "until the two towns find a better way . . . than guessing" whether voters in both towns will approve the same budget, says chair Tony Allison. This uncertainty is "no way to fund the budget" for an institution as important to the town as Concord-Carlisle High School, Allison has repeated throughout the winter.
Yet, given the odds against a positive denouement, other town leaders are less hopeful. John Ballantine, chair of the board of selectmen, says the town is "in a difficult position," and leaders are "disappointed about . . . the lack of dialogue and of willingness to address some of the budget constraints that Carlisle faces . . . All departments, particularly the Carlisle Public School, made significant cutbacks, yet the regional school and Concord Fincom did not really appreciate our dilemma," he adds.
On the other hand, Concord-Carlisle Regional School Committee chair Cindy Nock is disappointed that selectmen didn't offer voters the chance to vote on the school committee's budget request.
If a basic budget is not approved prior to July 1 in either or both towns, the Massachusetts Department of Education will order the towns to appropriate not less than 1/12 of the total budget approved for this fiscal year for each month until a budget is adopted.
Why are Carlisle's CCHS costs increasing so fast?
As of October 2001, more Carlisle students (39, or 14.7% more) were enrolled at CCHS than the year before, raising by 5.7% the proportion of school expenses Carlisle has to pay from 27.73% this year to 29.32% for next year. (How much Concord and Carlisle each pay toward the high school expenses is determined in part by this "assessment ratio," which fluctuates yearly depending on the relative headcount of students from each town.) This rise in the assessment ratio was compounded by a bump of 7.9% in total enrollment at the high school this year and a projected increase of 2.5% next year. This continuing growth means that not only Carlisle will have to pay a larger share of the pie, but the pie is getting bigger each year.
What's at stake in the CCHS budget pot?
Table 1 on page 7 summarizes the funding levels to be offered to voters in the two towns. Both the Carlisle balanced budget and the lower override (referred to as "5.9%" after the estimated resulting tax rate increase) were intended to match the Concord "levy limit," that is, what the town of Concord could pay if no overrides pass there. This would allow a 4.4% increase in the CCHS operating budget, the expenses to run the high school for a year.
Carlisle's higher override (the "7%" tax rate increase) will include an additional $44,000 in high school funding, but would still be substantially less than any of the three high school overrides in Concord. Concord has three higher overrides on the ballot - the Concord FinCom recommended operating increase of 6.6%, another higher level of 7.7%, and the school committee's request at 8.4%. If any of these three higher levels pass both at Concord Town Meeting and at the town election, the extended negotiation process that could result in a joint town meeting will begin.
However, Article 6, placed on the Carlisle Town Meeting warrant by petition, was intended to reduce this possibility. The article would allow the town to raise taxes to pay or to transfer enough to fund Carlisle's CCHS assessment at the level recommended by the Concord FinCom (the third level in Table 1), but only if that level passes at both Concord town meeting and town election. (This would cost Carlisle taxpayers about $92,000 more, unless the "7%" override - Article 5/question 1A - is approved, in which case it would add about $48,000 to the assessment.)
For more information on the CCHS budget, see articles in the February 1 Mosquito, in Gleason Library or at www.carlislemosquito.org (click on Archives in the left column). For more background, search for CCHS budget on the web site.
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito