PEPPERELL — Selectmen are asking municipal and school district unions for wage concessions again this year in an attempt to recover as much revenue as possible to avert any possibility of another override vote.
School unions — and particularly administrators — are included because, as Chairman Joseph Sergi said last week, the effect of the regional school district budget on taxpayers is no different than other municipal departments despite the autonomy granted it by state law.
The North Middlesex Regional School District education assessment represents 53 percent of Pepperell’s budget, and in the past two years has been about $1 million above state-mandated minimums. The school district’s enrollment has decreased by more than 200 students during the same period.
Meeting in special session on Thursday, Feb. 18, selectmen announced they received had answers to a series of questions proposed to school superintendent Maureen Marshall. The board had been waiting for Marshall’s response for nearly four months.
They had asked for a breakdown of school union concessions, a line-by-line report of the school district’s $1.2 million in free cash, the status of Marshall’s resolve last year to share her time with NMRSD and the Quabbin School District and the status of the town-owned Peter Fitzpatrick School leased by the district but which was to be returned to the town.
“I want to highlight concessions and the dollar value made by the teachers,” selectman Patrick McNabb said. “They conceded half of their negotiation amount which saved the district $537,000.”
Selectmen Jim Sergi said, “We should also emphasize that the school district will retain the lease on the Peter Fitzpatrick School through fiscal year 2011.”
The district planned to return the school back to Pepperell as a money-saving measure, moving its students to the Varnum Brook Elementary School. Maintenance cost to the town was never fully explored and some $40,000 offered by the district had been deemed insufficient.
It was discovered late last year that had the building been turned over, the school district would have lost more than $800,000 in state grant money used to defray the cost of the school’s addition built several years ago.
McNabb said that at the town level, administrator John Moak has been directed to approach three unions for concessions.
“Last year some did (library and police),” McNabb said. “We should approach DPW unions, and I believe it is prudent to school (unions) and administrators to take a pay freeze. I’m asking (school) administrators to step up and lead by example so (the load) not only falls on teachers.”
School administrator raises are said to be in the 4.5 to 5 percent range.
McNabb denied apparent assertions he is using news reports of selectmen’s meetings to get information to the school committee, but, he added, this year’s school wage increases are ‘huge’ (about $1 million) if contract amounts are granted.
“The reality is that what happens in schools affects the level of services in town (but) police are just as important as providing an education,” Sergi said.
The chairman was thankful for faculty-made concessions last year and said selectmen have taken a strong stance to look at administrative costs and insurance based on Moak’s talks with school officials.
“We don’t want to set up a situation where we’re in constant conflict with the school district,” he added.
McNabb said he is not advocating the cutting of teacher jobs right now.
“I understand there must be money cut. The way to soften the blow is to have everyone sacrifice,” he said. “There are a lot of people out there who have no job. Taking a small pay cut is better than having no job.”
If there are less school layoffs the district’s unemployment cost could be minimized, he said. Unemployment costs the school district $135,000 in the current year. Last year that was $38,000.
“I’ve been saying the same things,” selectman Joseph Hallisey said. “It’s all about efficiencies. We’ve been getting whacked left and right but my roads are still getting plowed although it takes a bit longer.”
“I’m asking to do more with less. Spread the pain. Let’s have the schools do what we do in town,” he said.