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PEPPERELL — Selectmen, Finance Committee, North Middlesex Regional School District committee members and 85 residents convened in all available Town Hall meeting rooms this week to discuss selectman Chairman Joseph Sergi’s recent request to remove $350,000 from the 2011 school budget.

Loudspeakers allowed listeners in the ancillary rooms to hear as school committee chairman Arnie Silva called for “something different” as the budget-setting season begins.

Sergi argued that residents want reassurance that all municipal department heads and school committee members have done their best to lower taxpayer costs, and are unsure that school officials have done so.

Rep. Robert Hargraves promised that the Legislature is “going back in January taking a hard look at (school) transportation cuts that the governor so joyously has amputated.”

Municipal and school officials agreed that although budgets will be based on speculation until Cherry Sheet money is set next year, there is real need to educate parents and other taxpayers so that they might make informed decisions. Just how to attract such interest is problematical however.

“Taxpayers don’t like (voting) up or down on a school budget but that’s the law,” Silva said. “We need meetings with the public getting to know what’s going on (but) we’ve never had more than 100 people at our public sessions.”

“I’m willing to pay more (for schools) but what about the public?” Silva asked. “The budget process is the same except we dig deeper (each year). I think all departments have and the schools will be doing so.”

Silva said that Sergi’s $350,000 request means the school district must actually trim almost $3 million from the budget assuming all aid formulas remain the same. The district has already lost $2.5 million in estimated state aid before the $350,000 Sergi wants discussed.

“We have heard parental concern. That’s why we’re here,” Sergi said. “The town has depleted over $2 million in free cash in two years and we have $550,000 left. The schools have increased theirs.”

Silva had reported that the school district’s $100,000 free cash from a few years ago has been built back up to more than $1 million and that some of it could be used to offset the recent loss of $350,000 in transportation funding.

Hargraves said Gov. Patrick’s Chapter 71 transportation cuts are “the red hot button for representatives who represent a regional school system and I represent two of them. We aren’t getting the taxes from capital gains, which is controlled by the economy, and lottery sales are down 15 to 20 percent.

“The Finance Committee seems to be on the money,” he continued. “Stimulus money that is supposed to go through 2012 I think will be used in 2011. This isn’t a blip on the radar screen. Things are not good. Someone here said there might not be steep raises but at least we have a job. That’s the right attitude.”

Last year Pepperell trimmed $500,000 from the municipal budget prior to voting on a $647,000 override referendum based on keeping the library, senior and community centers open. There had been a $1.9 million total shortfall. The town’s school assessment was $1 million above state recommended minimum.

Restrained emotion

The discussion included moments of barely restrained emotion which began building when Silva, apologizing for the absence of a “busy” school Superintendent Maureen Marshall, said the seven day’s notice given by selectmen is “short.”

Selectman Joseph Hallisey took “exception” to the statement, saying “I can assure you that [Police Chief Alan] Davis and [Fire Chief Toby] Tyler are just as busy.”

“You’re talking cutting $3 million from a $43 million (school) budget. There’s a lot more the cut there,” Davis, said, offering that he and Tyler could trim the school budget. His department has lost two officers due to lack of money.

“You’re talking improving programs. We’re talking ending them. What can (school) unions do (to help)?” Davis asked.

Silva responded that teachers unions volunteered wage concessions last year and that there is a way to change legislation that prevents a regional school district from charging for transportation.

“If you believe you have the expertise to evolve a school budget I’m sure Dr. Marshall would appreciate the help,” Silva said.

Speaking as a private resident, Finance Committee member Alan Leao took “umbrage” at Marshall’s frequent argument that the North Middlesex Regional School District is in the bottom 10 in expenditure per pupil. He said the Bridgewater-Raynham district bought back union contracts and spends $160 per student on administration while North Middlesex spends $360.

Leao said he won’t accept any School Committee attempt to “throw a new high school down our throat when the SBA (School Building Administration) rated it a two and replacement begins with a rating of four.

“If this committee wants a new school with a rating of two, look at the Varnum Brook School and Nissitissit (Middle School). These numbers don’t add up,” Leao said, “and the state won’t give any money until you hook up with Lunenburg.”

“Sorry, I don’t have all the facts. We’re exploring (regionalization) with Lunenburg. We’re not saying we will do it,” Silva responded. “Whatever rating is the high school, the school has been put on notice it may lose accreditation. Come down and explore. You can’t get all the answers from a web site.”

“I believe our administrative costs have gone down. We’ve reorganized and brought functions into the central office,” he said.

Resident Janine Kraus said the cross-function discussion was educational and agreed with Silva.

“I’d rather pay more in taxes to help departments and also to help schools. Good schools bring people in. Public forums are great and we must continue to communicate at both meetings. It has to do with educated parents,” she said.

“Every year I felt shamed to hear we’re at the bottom 10 percent per pupil expenditure,” Leao continued. “When you look at others, we are in line. (Saying otherwise) is not accurate. We must compare regional to regional (districts). We are not starving our kids with dollars.”

“When we lose our kids (to School Choice option) we lost to Groton-Dunstable and (other) neighbors, not Bridgewater Rayhnam. That’s where the comparison should be made,” Silva countered.

Silva then took offense when Sergi questioned why the school committee hadn’t attempted to cut their budget prior to the selectmen’s request.

“I had to take a lot of (back talk) when I asked for the budget reduction, including you,” Sergi said. “We have to come together and I’m not hearing it.”

Resident Douglas Adams said the when the town’s tax rates are validated “we can all face reality. I recommend we find out what the town’s position is on the maximum we have to come up with.”

School Committee member Sue Robbins cut off more back and forth about the difficulty with setting budgets/

“Obviously there are a lot of assumptions at this time,” she said. “The best we can do is put our goals together and see the ramifications of each.”

Robbins suggested alternatives that include a level service approach, a level funding approach, a budget cut by ‘x’ percent and a spread sheet.

“Maybe the current formula doesn’t work,” Sergi said, “and this board doesn’t want to get into managing a school budget. The national economy is going through a correction and, as Rep. Hargraves said, it’s not a blip. It’s permanent.

“The Pepperell budget is lean and trim. We could be back in shut down mode. If for whatever reason the schools won’t work with this board and the Finance Committee, we have a responsibility to explain it to the citizens,” he said.

“I don’t want to see anything cut out of the town,” said Silva. “I want everyone to understand (the $350,000 request) will mean a $3 million cut. The school committee will address it.”

Finance Committee chairman Christopher DeSimone reminded Silva of his comment the night Sergi had broached the $350,000 cut in Pepperell’s school assessment.

“You said that the school district has come a long way and it isn’t going to go backwards. That’s not very productive,” DeSimone said.

“There might not be anything wrong with the school budget but if we participate at least we’ll know,” Leao said.

“Parents need to show up for (meetings). We need to get the word out there,” Kraus said.

“The Board of Selectmen is not asking this so we can fire teachers or lower class sizes. We’re trying for a balance,” Hallisey said.

“We’ve asked a lot of our department heads. We shouldn’t ask any less of schools,” said Finance Committee member George Zacharakis.