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Staff Writer

PEPPERELL — Just five articles into a 28-article Annual Town Meeting warrant, voters passed a $1 million Proposition Two and a half override recommendation, tied to a $10-million-plus regional school budget, by a 217 to 133 vote margin.

Selectmen are expected to call for a ballot vote June 23 to ratify the town meeting decision.

The school budget discussion began about 9:30 p.m. Voting started an hour later with town meeting participants filing out of Nissitissit Middle School’s auditorium armed with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ paper tickets to drop into buckets in the adjoining music room.

Town moderator Scott Blackburn read the vote at 11:30 p.m. and called for adjournment until Tuesday, May 6.

A key factor in the decision was the North Middlesex Regional School District committee’s Friday, May 2 decision to decrease the district budget a second time, eliminating the need for Ashby and Townsend to pass an override to fund the fiscal year 2009 school budget.

Ashby town meeting approved the new figure and Townsend voters were expected to do the same Tuesday night. Approval by two of the three member towns ratifies the budget.

Pepperell’s share of the regional school budget decreased after $185,000 was cut by the school committee on Friday. The resulting figure still represents a 4 percent increase ($400,000) over last year’s contribution, which was a 9 percent increase. In the past two years, Pepperell has paid $1.5 million above its state recommended minimum contribution to the schools.

Considerable debate took place about whether Pepperell’s vote need be referenced with discussion of Ashby and Townsend school decisions. School Committee Chairman Arnold Silva, for one, asked why the override was tied to the school budget article because if Townsend passes its share, why would the $1 million be needed.

Finance Committee members and town administrator Robert Hanson argued that regardless of how it is presented, the override will avert taking money from the stabilization fund and free cash, leaving $500,000 and $300,000 respectively in each. That would harm the town’s credit rating for future borrowing.

Without the override, Pepperell could pay the school tab this year but would have no money with which to address the anticipated $1.7 million deficit for 2010.

Some residents did not like having their vote tied to what Ashby and Townsend voters do. Others wondered why Pepperell’s school budget share increased by 4 percent while the other two towns rose 2 percent. That’s because Pepperell has the majority of students in the system and the state aid formula considers per capita earning and property values, both of which are higher in Pepperell, Finance Committee chairman Diane Gaspar explained.

Silva argued that decreasing state aid and increasing retirement, maintenance, special needs and transportation costs are to blame.

“This is clearly a revenue problem, not a spending problem,” he said. “People who think we don’t look at every cost are mistaken.”

School Superintendent Dr. Maureen Marshall blamed a $1 million revenue loss from school choice-out, or students being sent to other school districts, for much of the revenue shortage, although that has been contained moving forward.

Twenty teachers have been cut from the district due to the current budget reduction.

The overall revenue picture was best summed up by one resident whose identity could not be discerned.

“I find it astonishing that a fiscally well-run town finds itself in this situation not caused by anyone in this room,” the resident said. “We’ve been shafted by legislators. To have Dr. Marshall put in a spot to justify how she’s educating our kids with decreasing revenues is just not right. The state budget was $13 billion 10 years ago. It’s $58 billion now and they say there isn’t enough money to give to the towns? It’s a shame!”

If voters approve the override at the polls in June, the tax bill on the average Pepperell home appraised at $350,000 can be expected to rise $255.

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