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Staff Writer

TOWNSEND — Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposed fiscal year 2008 budget would increase Chapter 70 school aid by 1.1 percent for the North Middlesex Regional School District, but if adopted it would fall far short of paying for the 7 percent increase in the district’s first-round school budget, Superintendent Dr. Maureen Marshall told the regional school committee.

The difference must be absorbed by taxpayers in Ashby, Pepperell and Townsend, she said, promising to attempt to maintain the current excellent collaboration with selectmen and finance committees seen throughout the budget-setting process.

Marshall was speaking at the March 5 district school committee meeting, a week prior to the scheduled budget hearing on March 12 and two days before she and the committee’s Pepperell representatives meet with that town’s finance committee.

Describing the draft district budget as “level service” that “allows us to do next year what we are currently doing,” Marshall said there will be access to twin $87,000 grants to both expand kindergarten supplies and to add three kindergarten teachers. She would also add one floating teacher position at the high school.

Grant approval hinges on the budget appearing to “be moving in that direction,” Marshall said, “but we may not be able to expand too far.”

She recommended leaving the kindergarten change in the budget because no one is sure what the General Court’s budget will include.

“There is a policy in this district, and it’s a good one, of adopting (a budget) higher than we need,” she said.

Characterizing recently-concluded teacher contract negotiations as “difficult” yet helpful to the budget, Marshall noted the increase in staff contributions to health insurance to 20 percent from 10 percent. “Unfortunately, that cost has to be born by the employee,” she said.

Marshall lamented the need to set a foundation budget, calling it “a make-believe budget that the state says we need to educate our students. The state, the Legislature, and we know it isn’t enough, but no one knows how to fix it.”

The foundation budget dictates, for example, that $1.7 million be spent on medical insurance for a district the size of North Middlesex. A “nice idea,” Marshall said, yet “if you don’t have an adequately-funded foundation, Chapter 70 will never meet the need.”

Last year’s $19 million in Chapter 70 receipts, plus the governor’s 1.1 percent increase, represents slightly less than 60 percent of the district’s overall budget, she noted.

“Hopefully we and (the towns) can work together,” Marshall said. “They have needs and so do we. We understand it will be a challenging year. Don’t get depressed. This is going to work. Most school systems are looking at the same depressing numbers. And if that’s being a Pollyanna, then hey, I’m a Pollyanna.”

“This doesn’t look good,” regional school committee member Frederick Wheeler said. “It will impact every person in the district.”

Committee Chairman Theresa Morse asked Marshall what recommended cuts might be forthcoming. Marshall said she will be working on those for another week.

Speaking to a proposed increase in high school sports staff and purchase of text books, committee member Susan Fitzgerald said, “There’s no way I want to engineer this to fail. I don’t want to see any sacrifices.”

Member Arnold Silva said, “We’re going to need community support. This has been going on too long. If you really want success you have to pay for it. Explain it, rationalize it and fund it.”

Committee member Joseph Sciacca noted that the town’s finances are also in rough shape.

“It comes down to a situation where towns must decide what they value, town services or quality education. They basically have to step up to the plate. We’re spiraling downward (financially),” he said.

“There is Proposition Two and a Half but inflation is up 3.5 percent. At one point Chapter 70 was two-thirds of the budget, now it’s 70 percent. If town officials have to talk override, then it’s their responsibility to pursue,” Sciacca said.

“The most valuable thing people have is their property,” committee member Dennis Moore added. “The first question we now must ask is, how good are the schools? People moving into a town do. Schools have a significant impact on property values so, in a way, schools are a good investment.”

Wheeler said the area’s population will be growing, and attracting students with a long-term approach could “open things up. There are more students coming into the ninth grade. Everyone in the towns has a pony in the race here.”

“Anything we can do to keep students out of school choice and Charter Schools will help,” Marshall said.

“People make comparisons, and when folks compare (this administration to the previous),” Moore said, “Jim (McCormick) made it very clear we can’t continue the way we were. This is nothing different than what Jim would have done.”

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