Gardner News: Ashburnham says ‘no’

Westminster OKs override, but 2 towns must agree

Doneen Durling
News Correspondent

As a regional district, it is difficult to pass a Proposition 2 ½ tax override request, but people said what makes it most frustrating is when one town approves it while the other doesn’t. It only takes one town’s rejection to make an override null and void.

During yesterday’s override vote, Westminster approved a $591,279 override, by a vote of 893-528, a margin of 365 votes. The town had a showing of 1,422 voters at the polls.

Ashburnham rejected its $679,733 override by only 24 votes, 663-687. There were 1,350 voters who turned up at the J.R. Briggs Elementary school.

Superintendent Gary Mazzola was dismayed at the final count and said the district had worked extremely hard to lose by only 24 votes.

“It’s going to be worse when there are 32 kids in a class,” he warned. “This particular override was about restoring personnel and providing enough teachers for the kids at the high school. The fact that it was only 24 votes is a travesty.”
Mazzola said students understood what the rejection meant for them.

“I am more concerned about the low elementary grades and the high school,” he said.

Mazzola said there has been no infusion of revenue in the last decade to keep up with the needs of the district, and he predicted that it would only get worse.

“We are pretty strapped and funding hasn’t grown over 1 percent in the last 10 years,” he said.

When asked if he thought the drive for reform should be at the state level, Mazzola said state revenues are also shy of what is needed.

“Their issues are so much bigger than ours. We’re just a small community. We have to take care of our own. For a few short dollars, about 20 bucks a month, I just don’t think people would miss it. This was an organized attempt at a strategic plan that drove the budget process. Everyone knew what the money was for. We were very transparent.”

Mazzola said that along with the large class size, he was worried about the high school accreditation and the lack of teachers at the high school.

“If you think it is bad this year, wait until the following year,” he said. “We have scraped and skinned and really tried to become as transparent and efficient as possible. People buy homes in this town because they know we care about kids’ education. Who would want to buy a home when they learn there are 32 students in one classroom?”

School Committee Chair­man David Christianson said the committee will discuss the next step this evening during the School Committee meeting. He said there are a few options.

“We can accept the results of the override vote, and certify the budget that is currently funded, which is below level services. We could choose to send the same number back to Ashburnham for another vote. We could choose to change the number. I don’t think you can go up … and why would you do that … you would go down in which case both towns would have to vote.”

Christianson said that the vote could be brought to a joint town meeting, which has happened before.

“The question (Wednesday) will be do you certify what you have which is below level services? The danger is in interpreting the vote,” said Christianson.

The School Committee will meet at Overlook Middle School at 7 p.m.