School Committee stands by increase, rejects cost-cutting


HARVARD — Defending a school budget that’s $882,501 — 8.95 percent — higher than last year’s, School Committee member Paul Wormser explained to the tri-board why the committee hadn’t created a list of cuts as requested by the Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee.

Much of the increase has been attributed to special education costs including out-of-district tuition and programs the state and federal governments require but do not fund, he said.

A task force has been formed to look into special education spending and explore cost-control options but hasn’t issued a report.

For the Jan. 27 meeting, the tri-board — selectmen, Finance and School committees — had asked the School Committee to come up with a list of cuts it could make if it had to trim it budget increase to $200,000, $400,000 or $600,000 instead of the full amount. The aim was to show the impact of various spending levels.

But the School Committee didn’t follow through.

“It’s not responsible,” said Wormser.

He said the $882,501 increase is what it will take to run the schools next year, maintain services and staff, add essential programs and continue delivering high-quality education.

The town will almost certainly ask voters for an override to increase residential property taxes above the limits of Proposition two-and-a-half, but the override is being considered either as a single, $1.2-million increase or three smaller, “tiered” options. If town meeting voters approve the override request, then a special election must be held to insure voter approval.

School Committee member Mark Hardy said the tiered setup shows how much voters would need to pay for each option and may be less risky than a single, $1.2-million bid that other tri-board members have said is almost sure to fail at the polls.

The town override includes the school, roughly the new library at $179,739, $100,000 budgeted for ongoing contract negotiations, and $218,000 for expenses such as cost of living increases (COLAs) and employee benefits, said town administrator Timothy Bragan.

Selectman Roy Scott Kimball said he wanted to offer choices if an override is unavoidable. He said some residents can’t afford higher taxes.

Selectmen Chairman Randall Dean also supported the tiered choice. Presenting options shows people what they’re up against and lets voters, not town officials, determine where they stand on the tax issue, he said.

Ultimately, the decision may be whether people can afford to live here, Dean said. Harvard’s tax base is 98 percent residential, he said, so the tax burden falls on homeowners.

Those tri-board members who spoke on the issue said the single override was better because it puts the request into town-wide perspective. The tiered approach breaks the total override figure into three separate, smaller amounts, with one paying for the schools, one for the library and one for the rest of town government.

Proponents have argued that in a tiered set-up, town meeting voters could vote for one, two, all or none of the override options rather than voting yes or no on a $1.2-million override.

Opponents said voters are less likely to choose a higher versus a lower figure and that the schools — the largest dollar figure — could lose out.

Resident Amber Evans said she and other voters want expert advice, not an override checklist.

“We expect you, our elected officials, to present recommendations,” she said.

Some tri-board members acknowledged that in a three-tiered structure, the library option wasn’t only a less-costly override option, but would be logical for voters to support.

“It makes no sense to build a new facility and then not fund it,” Cynthia Russo from the FinCom said.

Several tri-board members expressed disappointment at not having the school budget-cut lists to discuss, but said that even without the lists, voters deserve more than a vague “it will be bad” explanation of what will happen to the schools without an override.

After volleying the issue around for nearly three hours, tension flared. Selectman William Marinelli challenged the school board’s decision not to provide the lists, as requested. He said the aim of the exercise was to show differences between spending levels in terms of school operations.

“The difference is this budget works!” said Wormser, still defending the increased school spending.

“Oh, come on, treat the voters with respect,” Marinelli countered.

“So don’t do it, just present it as it is,” said Deb Ricci from the FinCom. It’s time to get back on track and take a vote, she said.

School Committee Chairman Willie Wickman said she didn’t see the value in making cut lists now any more than she favored a tiered override on the warrant. While it’s crucial for the other boards to fully understand what the schools are asking for, she said, the three boards should present a unified front to the town.

“The voters want a recommendation,” she said. “To serve the town well, we need to get there collectively.”

Asked if that’s the committee’s rationale for the single, large override, Wickman said yes. Pinpointing cuts, even as an exercise, would be divisive and counter-productive, she said.