Friday, December 6, 2002
League sponsors discussion of schools and taxes
Crises in funding for Concord-Carlisle High School have been the context for many meetings of Carlisle and Concord school, finance and town administrators over the past few years. However, on November 20 they met in a less tense milieu, at a forum on budget issues organized by the League of Women Voters of Concord and Carlisle.
Problems the towns have in common emerged quickly as Concord Town Manager Chris Whelan and FinCom chair Dick Levinson, Carlisle Selectman Tim Hult and FinCom chair Larry Barton, and school administrators Carlisle Superintendent Davida Fox-Melanson and Concord-Carlisle Acting Superintendent Eugene Thayer addressed fiscal pressures and answered questions from the audience.
Nearly all expressed concerns about the tax burden on older residents with no children in the schools. Most noted differences in the demographic profiles of longer-term and younger residents. Whelan described it as the "intergenerational conflict between people who want a great education for their kids and people who . . . want to stay out their years here . . . and don't want to have to sell their house" because property taxes are too high.
Setting up a 'perfect storm'
For next year, given a 6% enrollment increase and a $125,000 reduction in state aid to the regional district, both communities will need to pass an override for CCHS "just to stay even," according to Thayer.
Carlisle taxes: 100% residential
Selectman Tim Hult summarized the "extraordinary change" that has led to Carlisle's present financial situation. Over the past ten years, the town has improved public facilities — a town hall building, renovated library, new ball fields, school expansion — and begun to "professionalize" town operations, trying to raise salaries to the level of comparable communities.
But Carlisle's tax base, unlike Concord's, is virtually 100% residential, with little growth from new construction anticipated over the next few years. Selectmen are concerned about the "significant impact" of an increase in assessed land values on the tax bills of smaller houses, hoping to keep families without children from fleeing the town.
Slowdown in Carlisle?
Both he and Concord FinCom chair Dick Levinson urged selectmen in both towns to limit the override levels to make it simpler to "let taxpayers decide," in Barton's words. Barton pointed out that as long as "times were good" voters in Carlisle had been willing to support overrides, with 6 to 7% tax increases. But with economic "suffering" and withdrawal of support from the state, "people say let's slow down a bit."
Trust and accountability in Concord
Levinson's comments indicated tension between Concord's finance and school committees. He reported a "lack of public confidence about how funds are spent" and the "failure of two-way communication," and identified "trust and accountability" as the key issues in school-budget debates in Concord.
Questions from the audience
In response to questions from the audience, town officials and educators made the following points:
• Fox-Melanson and others expressed hope that voters will continue to support education.
• Both educators cited mandated costs for special education as a driver of increased school costs. Thayer noted that even if a district provides a comparable program, by law parents can choose to keep children in outside placements, which are usually more expensive.
• Both educators also expressed reluctance to add fees for school activities (bus, all-day kindergarten, after-school activities)
• Comparing the average teacher salary at CCHS to that in other districts can be misleading, Thayer pointed out, because Concord-Carlisle has so many experienced teachers earning at the top of the salary schedule.
• Thayer said the high school will need more classrooms to accommodate both increased enrollment and changing programs, citing smaller class sizes and expansion of computer, art and music programs in particular. (See "$45 million expansion proposed for high school" on page 1.)
• The 2.6% guideline adopted by the Carlisle FinCom for the Carlisle elementary school reflects what is available within the levy limit (the total taxes the town would be permitted to raise without an override), according to Barton.
• Group health insurance, with costs expected to leap for both towns this year, is not subject to much control, according to Whelan and Hult. The two towns and regional district, along with many other towns and school districts in the area, already belong to an insurance consortium that tries to bargain for the lowest possible costs. And Hult pointed out that though a change in providers might save funds, it would take time for analysis and agreement of the member towns. Finally, a recent court decision would require any changes in benefits or costs to be negotiated with each union representing affected employees, Whelan said.
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito