GROTON — Jay Prager believes those who are trying to decide how to vote on the $1.3 million property-tax override proposed by the School Committee should ask themselves if the school budget is sustainable.
The extra funding would only pay for the $1.23 million increase in employees’ salaries and benefits expected for the next fiscal year, Prager said. And, he thinks residents should urge the district to come up with a long-range solution for the growing fiscal woes by rejecting the tax override.
“We believe the time to send a message is now,” Prager, chairman of the town Finance Committee, told the Town Meeting participants on Monday night.
For resident Jon Boroshok, however, the Finance Committee’s stance against the tax override means “a vote against our kids.”
The youngsters have only one shot at their education, and the community cannot afford to put off investing in its own future, said the father of two. Besides, Boroshok said, sacrificing the quality of local education can cause property values to decline.
“We are shooting ourselves in the foot,” Boroshok told the Town Meeting about the opposition to the tax override.
After a heated hour-and-a-half debate, an overwhelming majority at Town Meeting voted for the property-tax override to support the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District. The question now goes to the ballot box next month.
The tax-override issue drew more than 500 voters to Town Meeting. Annual Town Meeting normally attracts from 150 to 230 residents, according to Town Clerk Michael Bouchard.
Groton’s share of the $1.3 million tax override would be $995,781. Because the $27.95 million municipal budget that Town Meeting adopted Monday night came in $64,445 below the 2 1/2 property tax limit, the actual tax override amount for Groton would be $931,336.
Without the tax override, the municipal budget would cause the average tax bill to increase about $64. The tax override would cost an additional $256, on top of the $64, for a typical taxpayer who owns a home assessed at $400,000.
The debate over the tax override began with Prager’s urge to reject the tax-override proposal, saying the School District’s employee contracts have allowed an unsustainable growth for financial needs. He pointed out that school employees’ wages are expected to increase by $816,000 and their benefits by $415,000, while the town government is providing no cost-of-living adjustments for nonunion employees next year, and union town workers will receive only an 1.5 percent wage increase on average. Town Manager Mark Haddad’s fiscal 2011 budget — which Town Meeting adopted — stands for 1.64 percent increase in spending from the current year. It already provides the School District with an $464,000 funding increase, which accounts for 77 percent of the town’s projected revenue, Prager said.
“Our school budget should be affordable,” Prager said, adding that Finance Committee is unanimously opposed to the tax override.
Prager’s comment struck a nerve with resident and school teacher Anne Polaski.
“This is the first time in 30 years of living in this town that I have seen an elected official attack teachers,” Polaski said, drawing applause from the audience.
Resident Doug Browne defended Prager, saying the many residents in town are out of work.
“Honestly, the last time we gave employees a raise was 2005,” he said of the company he works for, adding that anyone expecting the kind of raise that teachers contract allows in this economy is “delusional.”
Resident Dame Krampitz said he will be glad to pay extra to support teachers, even though he lost his job.
“Teachers are the most valuable resource we have in the community,” said Krampitz. “I don’t think we pay them enough for what they do.”
School Committee member Alison Manugian, who made a presentation on behalf of the committee, promised the board won’t ask for another tax override if this year’s proposal passed. She explained the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District will receive $1.38 million less from the state next fiscal year, and the tax override amount almost equals that figure. She said the state “intentionally moved the burden” to local taxpayers. According to Superintendent Alan Genovese, the School Committee’s budget only calls for a 1.3 percent spending increase.
Manugian also pointed out that the local district spends “11,379 per student, compared to the state average of $13,055.”
“We are already cheaper than the state (average),” School Committee member Jon Sjoberg said. “We are already cheaper than the market.”
Many voters left Town Meeting after the vote on the tax override. Town Meeting was recessed at about 10:30 p.m. due to a lack of quorum after a unanimous vote to increase real estate tax exemption for those who qualify for exemption under state law (Article 9).
Town Meeting also approved transfer of $345,100 from the Capital Stabilization Fund for several capital improvement projects. The items include $165,000 for the Fire Department to replace the tanker 1 cab and chassis, $55,000 for the Highway Department to purchase an intermediate truck, $30,000 for the town to improve its technology infrastructure, $57,100 for the Police Department to replace cruisers and $38,000 to replace the police chief’s vehicle.
Asked by resident Roger Cruz if these items warrant expenditure out of the Stabilization Fund, Police Chief Ronald Palma said he considers cruiser replacements as emergency purchases for the extensive mileage on them. His vehicle, for example, broke down seven times over the past year, requiring it to be towed away from the road, Palma said.
Town Meeting also authorized selectmen to apply for federal and state grants and expend awarded grants, and approved elected officials’ compensation, wage and classification schedule for town employees and the $536,044 funding for the Nashoba Valley Regional Technical High School.
It also voted to renew the Stormwater Revolving Fund as well as the Conservation Commission Revolving Fund.
The Town Meeting will resume at 7 p.m. on Monday.