Southborough voters increase in schools’ budgets approved

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By Art Simas Community Reporter

Southborough – Residents at the April 11 Annual Town Meeting held at Trottier Middle School were in no mood to hear about the possibility of cuts or reductions to any of the schools” budgets.

After an hour of hearing presentations from Schools Superintendent Charles E. Gobron, who directs the K through 8 Southborough elementary schools, as well as the 9 through 12 Algonquin Regional School District, Board of Selectmen members William Boland and John Rooney, and several residents, Town Meeting members vot- ed to fund the requested $16.9 million, a 2.67 percent increase over the current year.

The Board of Selectmen had proposed a $16.3 million school budget and the Finance Advisory Board had proposed to further reduce that amount by $145,259. But voters wanted none of it.

Residents who spoke in favor of the requested $16.8 million said they did not want their children to receive a second-rate education. Several residents noted that the schools were the reason they had moved to the town.

Voters were worried that the proposed budgets from the selectmen or the Advisory Committee would be too much of a cut for the schools to handle and push a typical elementary class size to the high 20s.

Rooney argued that a higher class size was becoming the norm in many other communities and noted the K through 8 budget has increased by more than $2 million in the last five years, while enrollment has decreased.

“We'se paying more and getting less,” he said.

Gobron explained to the audience of nearly 300 voters that the schools had absorbed a $450,000 reduction in so-called “circuit breaker” funds, which pay for special education programs, from the state.

He also noted additional savings within the budget, such as having one administrator serve as principal of two schools (due to the retirement of one principal) and departures of personnel with no unemployment costs to the town.

It was also learned at Town Meeting that the teachers” union had settled with the School Committee.

According to School Committee Chair Marybeth R. Strickland, teachers will pay 25 percent of the health care premiums and will get a raise to equal the amount of that cost to offset the expense.

“And they will receive very small raises going forward for the next three years,” she noted. “We all worked hard to appeal to all residents. We worked on a budget that came in with a 2 percent increase.”

Rooney said that seniors and those on fixed incomes would feel the effect of the increase in the school budget.

Voters also approved Southborough's assessment of $6.9 million, an 8 percent increase, to fund the Algonquin Regional School District budget.

The total operating budget is $17.6 million, a 0.55 percent increase over the current budget. The remaining assessment is shared with the town of Northborough.

Boland contended the assessment calculation, which can be done two ways, is currently skewed to favor Northborough.

The issue of the assessment stems from the Algonquin addition/ renovation project.

“The Massachusetts School Building Authority reimbursed the regional school district $36.1 million toward the cost of Algonquin's addition/renovation project,” Gobron said. “All of these funds were used to pay down the debt on the school.

“Each year the towns pay a share of the debt. Southborough feels the regional agreement, that requires debt to be assessed using a four-year rolling average, should be followed.

“Northborough feels the provisions of Chapter 70B – which take into consideration each town's ability to pay – should be followed. The difference is estimated at $1.5 million.

“The Massachusetts School Building Authority, the Department of Revenue and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education have not wished to become involved in the controversy. The Regional School Committee has been using the four-year rolling average, and Northborough has gone to court to seek an opinion on how the debt should be assessed.”

In other business on the first day of Annual Town Meeting, voters heard that private schools St. Mark's and Fay will each donate the cost of a police cruiser to town in addition to other funding these schools provide to Southborough. For example, Fay has pledged $100,000 over 10 years.

The New England Center for Children will donate $80,000 and another $12,000 for the cost of a Fire Department ladder truck. In addition, Harvard University and other nonprofits have also pledged to contribute to the town's PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) program.

“We'se making some headway … larger than baby steps,” Rooney said.

Voters also approved to put $147,257 into the town's reserve fund and to pay $51,000 to the Police Department budget to fund continued incentives for police education and training (also known as the Quinn Bill), as a result of negotiations with Local 167 (Mass. Coalition of Police, Patrol Officers and Sergeants).

At press time, there were 24 articles on the Town Warrant that still needed attention.