Gardner News: Override vote set for July 18

Doneen Durling
News Correspondent

ASHBURNHAM – The Board of Selectmen voted to set a town meeting for July 18 for the sole purpose of asking voters for a $475,656 Proposition 2 ½ tax override to benefit the Ashburnham Westminster Regional School District.

Selectmen also voted to set up an election for Aug. 8, for the second vote that would be needed to pass it.

Before the approval, Chairman Kyle Johnson opened up the meeting to listen to public opinion.

Concerned citizen Raven Bergeron suggested that a “frequently asked questions” informational sheet be handed out before the ballot vote for those who did not attend meetings or keep up with the flow of information.

Johnson said that many ideas have been discussed for ways to keep voters in the loop as information on the budget is released.

“The goal is just to get information out and give people what they need to formulate their own opinions,” he said.

Johnson said they are seeking different ways to disseminate information including posting the information at Town Hall, and putting it on the town’s website.

Members of the group Save Our Children and Schools were well-represented at the meeting. They expressed their thanks for the collaboration between the town and School Committee.

Selectman John Mulhall suggested that people watch the town website for any information on informational meetings or forums that will be happening before the Town Meeting.

A memorandum of un­­der­standing was requested by some who believed the vote did not pass because people were wary of the fact that an override is permanent, and there would be no way to control the amount going to the schools the year after the override was passed.

Johnson said the board decided that, in an age of double-speak, it would produce a letter that “cut right to the chase.”

They adopted something simple with just one sentence.

“It is the intention of the current Board of Selectmen to apply any funding procured by a Proposition 2 ½ override to its intended voted purpose in future budget years,” Johnson read from the prepared document.

“We weren’t interested in it being any more complicated than that and really being up to interpretation,” said Johnson.

School Committee member Michelle Gianino nodded her approval of the letter saying, “Straight to the point. No fluff. It’s the best way to go.”

Gianino said that many people she spoke to expressed concern the school district would find itself repeatedly asking for funding if the override was not dedicated consistently to the district.

“Thank you for making that commitment,” she said.

Mulhall said he was happy the School Committee was able to reduce the override number the previous evening.

On June 20, a vote taken at the ballot box by Ashburnham voters for an override in the amount of $679,733 for the school district’s prioritized budget failed by only 24 votes.

School Committee Chairman David Christianson gave all credit for the reduction in the override assessment to School District Business Manager Julie Surprenant and Superintendent Gary Mazzola.

“It’s about a 25 percent reduction in the overall number,” he said. “It’s a good demonstration of the kind of diligence those folks have.”

Johnson said that the budget cycle with all its dates is inherently flawed in that decisions on numbers are made before all the numbers are in. He commended the business administrator and superintendent for their work to make the numbers work.

“I truly believe that there isn’t a corner or nook or cranny of that budget that has not had a light shown on it since Dr. Mazzola and really Julie took over and started digging into that. I am extremely confident,” said Johnson.

Mulhall agreed saying he had studied the 35-page budget and had multiple questions answered.

“We are looking about as lean as we could look,” he said.

Christianson gave a synopsis of the reasons for the reductions to the override request. He said there were three components. He explained that there was $250,000 on the expense side in savings, and $200,000 of was gleaned when the open enrollment and opt-out period for the health plan for the school district ended early last week. The district had additional unexpected opt-outs combined with a 1.5 percent reduction in premium because of additional co-pay changes.

An additional $50,000 savings in heating costs were realized after the numbers came in from the first year of operating the new pellet boiler at Overlook Middle School. Combined with additional savings seen at J.R. Briggs Elementary with its pellet boiler, the savings added up.

Christianson said the balance of the adjustment to the override is the assumption that there is about $70,000 additional Chapter 70 state school aid for transportation and other items the Legislature has factored into the state budget. In total, there is about a $320,000 change to the override numbers.

Johnson said that in his opinion the town is standing at a crossroad with the school district.

“There really is an underlying crisis as it relates to classroom size,” said Johnson. “If we don’t do everything in our legal power to try and correct the problem, I will not have done the job I was elected to do. It is the same tenacity that I applied to the DPW building. If I am prepared to do it for a town building, how can I do anything less for the children?”

Mulhall said that the Board of Selectmen have a commitment. He said that he believes a society is judged on how they treat their elderly and their children.

“I think if we are not giving our children every opportunity, I think that if we don’t support the schools, our community is not going to be worth what we see today, and it is certainly not going to be anything close to what most of us want to see in 20 years.”

Mulhall said the state would not be coming through with a golden ticket.

“If we don’t support our schools, we are going to be struggling to tell our kids that we did the best by them.”

Town Administrator Heather Budrewicz said that if the override gets voted down, chances are a joint Town Meeting of the residents of both towns could be called if the School Committee chooses.

Budrewicz said that if it came to that and the vote in the joint meeting was for the full priority budget, Ashburnham would have to go back and cut $475,000 from the municipal budget (the part not including the schools), and do it over a reduced nine months’ worth of budget.

“That is very important for folks to realize,” said Budrewicz of the municipal budget, saying that scenario would prompt major town layoffs. “Our largest expense, just like with schools and teachers, is staff … so it is a very big concern.”