SHIRLEY — One article on the Special Town Meeting (STM) warrant was a complex, three-part series of money moves that Selectman Enrico Cappucci called “a shell game.”
Board of Selectmen Chairman Leonardo “Chip” Guercio decried that notion during the April 7 STM.
It’s a no-nonsense bid to balance the town budget, he said, not an attempt to play games with town money. Line-item shifts the selectmen and Finance and School committees used to make ends meet were hammered out in public-strategy sessions, he said.
Cappucci spoke against part three of the article, which transfers money from separate accounts into the reserve fund. It’s slated to cover a $64,137.98 school budget shortfall that stood at $200,000 a couple of months ago. It was paid down by trust funds and other means.
The School Committee suggested the reserve-fund setup to create a transparent process, said committee member Robert Schuler. The schools must go to the Finance Committee to request the money, he explained.
But Cappucci cautioned against pocket-picking switches that could ultimately deplete MCI funds the town gets for hosting a prison. That could happen if selectmen, who have jurisdiction over that account, dip into it too often to close gaps, he said.
With commitments accounted for, Finance Committee Chairman Ellen Doiron said the balance, which started out at $700,000, is now about $200,000.
At a recent selectmen’s meeting, Council on Aging members asked if the MCI account contains a specific amount set aside for a future senior center. The answer was yes.
But if reserve funds get low, Cappucci said the MCI account gets tapped and earmarked money could be used for another purpose.
Earlier, School Committee member Robert Schuler had sketched the deficit story. Key culprits are unexpected hikes in special-education tuition and higher energy costs, he said. But he blamed the rising number of students attending charter schools or “choiced out” to other districts on lack of consumer confidence.
The state plucks money for choice and charter tuition off the municipal cherry sheet, said Schuler. To stop the outflow, the schools must improve, he said.
But some residents don’t buy the idea that money’s the answer. Tax collector Holly Haas is one of them.
It’s offensive when people insist that anyone who won’t vote with them on school issues is “against our kids,” she said. “Many people here (who may vote no on an override, for example) have done a lot” for the town’s youngsters.
Zoning Board of Appeals member Rachel Sizer said she’s worried shortfalls will continue. She asked if the schools have a contingency plan.
Schuler replied by reiterating points in his presentation, noting that items responsible for the shortfall were unexpected, one-time expenses.
Sizer said that’s not what she’d asked.
“I guess Mr. Schuler doesn’t want to answer the question,” she concluded.
Resident Graham Claydon criticized the status quo.
“People think throwing money at (the problem) will fix it,” he said, but that’s not the case.
Harvard, for example, with its top MCAS scores, spends less per pupil than Shirley does and gets less cash from the state, he said. He suggested looking at charter schools to see how they draw students.
“What we need are bright ideas,” he said.
The motion passed 112-53 by secret ballot. Town moderator George Knittel said 165 of 181 residents who signed in at meeting voted on the motion.
Part one of the article passed with the required two-thirds majority vote. It shifts $118,635 appropriated at last year’s Annual Town Meeting (ATM) to a different line item to cover group insurance costs.
Last year, insurance premiums were paid for only 11 of 12 months. The final payment was deferred, he said, pending the sale of a town-owned parcel known as the Barkus property off Walker Road. It had been declared surplus, appraised and put up for sale when voters approved the partial payment.
Then the market tanked, said Guercio, and the land didn’t sell.
The second part consisted of several transfers dating to the 2007 ATM. In one instance, it called for creating a new School Department line item for Minuteman Regional High School.
When the issue came up at a selectmen’s meeting, town administrator Kyle Keady said one student, by right, chose Minuteman over Nashoba Valley Technical High School, the regional, vocational high school the town belongs to. He said Minuteman offered a program Nashoba didn’t.
Now, the town must pay that student’s tuition and transportation. The line item reserves a place if a similar situation occurs later. The motion passed unanimously.
The meeting was continued to the following night.