Voters to weigh in on Proposition 2½ tax increases on July 25
After months of negotiations and votes of Town Meeting and the Selectmen, the School Department faces a final hurdle for its Proposition 2½ override and other proposed tax increases: the July 25 special election. Officials hope to save 21 teaching positions, complete building repairs, and purchase learning materials.
Voters will be asked to approve an override, which would raise property taxes above the annual tax cap indefinitely. Voters will also consider three separate "debt exclusions," which would raise property taxes for five years to fund specific projects.
In April, Town Meeting voters approved a town-wide budget with drastic cuts after a particularly tumultuous budget cycle that left leaders struggling to fill a multimillion dollar gap. Knowing the cuts were coming, the School Committee proposed the tax increases, which officials say are much-needed to keep the school system afloat, but won't solve all of its funding problems.
"The big O," as officials have called the override, would generate $780,000 in the first year and allow the School Department to fund the 21 teaching positions eliminated in June.
The money would only be used to rehire the 21 teachers, though Superintendent Dr. Barry Rabinovitch noted that, after receiving their layoff notices, three teachers have already accepted jobs elsewhere. Administrative positions, including an assistant principal at Hammond Elementary and a guidance counselor at Wareham High, will not be filled.
Recognizing that tax increases are going to be difficult for residents to swallow, Rabinovitch urged voters to "consider their vote very carefully."
"All of us who are eligible to vote in this election were educated, and someone paid for that education," he said. "We have a responsibility to educate our young people."
The override will cost the taxpayer approximately 23 cents per $1,000 valuation of a home. For example, a home valued at $100,000 would be charged an additional $23 per year for the override.
Without the override, average class sizes will increase from 23 to 28 students, school officials say.
"It's not optimum, neither for the advanced child nor for the child who has challenges with their learning," Rabinovitch said. "Our teachers are professionals, and they will do their best, but to say that it won't have an effect would be lying."
After the first year, the money generated from the override would go into the town's general coffers. It would not be earmarked for the School Department. At that time, town officials would have to determine how to proceed.
Rabinovitch noted: "If we don't vote 'yes,' then there's no chance in getting it this year or any other year."
The three debt exclusions would fund textbooks and technology ($341,000), pay for repairs to the Wareham High School roof ($110,000), and pay for a "feasibility study" for renovations to Minot Forest Elementary ($575,000).
The textbooks purchased would be classroom sets that support the district's new federal- and state-mandated math and English curriculum. The district did not ask for full sets so that the students could take the books home.
"We only asked for what we absolutely needed," Rabinovitch said. "We were trying to be modest in our requests."
For that reason, the district only requested the funding necessary to repair the high school gym roof, which has become a leaking hazard, even causing basketball games to get "rained out," Rabinovitch said. The entire roof will eventually need replacing.
The feasibility study is a necessary step the district must complete in order to get state reimbursement for renovations at Minot Forest Elementary. If the study isn't funded, the school is bumped off the state's waiting list, which it has been on for years.
The state will reimburse at least 60% of the cost of the project. After the study is complete, the district will have a set of plans so it can price construction costs.
"All of the mechanical [systems], the electricity, heating ... are original and need to be replaced," Rabinovitch said.
A similar Wareham Middle School project was completed in the last decade through a debt exclusion. The project was paid off in 2010, Rabinovitch said.
The price to fund all three of the debt exclusions would be 5 cents per $1,000 of a home's value for each of the five years.
The price to fund the override and all three of the debt exclusions would be, per year, 28 cents per $1,000 of a home's value, or $28 per $100,000 of a home's value. After five years, the extra cost for the debt exclusions would be eliminated.
A majority of the town's Finance Committee is in support of the override and debt exclusions.
"All these requirements are weighing very heavily on the School Department," FinCom Chair Donna Bronk said in reference to unfunded curriculum changes and other mandates trickling down from the state.
She added: "As far as the debt exclusions, we have no choice. We have to fix the roof. We have to get current materials."
But, Bronk said, the town needs to work together to find a permanent solution to its budget problems.
Noting that she is in-favor of the override, the FinCom members who were against it were against it because "they believe the town should start living within its means, and you know what, I agree with them too," she said.
David Trudell, who stressed that he was speaking as an "individual who happens to be on the FinCom," elaborated.
"The issue is simple. If we vote for [a] Proposition 2½ [override], then [the schools] get the money for this year, but then next year the money drops into the general fund. ... We're going to be right back where we are right now, looking for another override," Trudell explained. "Why would I vote to increase my taxes on an annual basis? ... This is not solving anything."
As for the debt exclusions, Trudell noted that paying for much-needed items throughout the town has been an ongoing issue.
"The town's not making progress," he said, noting that the Capital Planning Committee, which is charged with prioritizing and planning for big-ticket purchases such as vehicles and building repairs, has been "starved. They can't get money for serious issues. ... We've been trying to get an ambulance for four years."
Trudell stressed: "It's time for us to decide to live within our budget."
Bronk noted: "It's a terrible situation."
But it's a situation she hopes will unite the town.
"I believe that the town can use this crisis as an opportunity, and the School Department and the town can come together. ... We're all in this together and we have to make sacrifices," she said. "If our schools go down, our property values go down. It's happening already and it will continue."
The polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, July 25. Visit WarehamVillageSoup.com for results.