By Michelle Murdock, Contributing Writer
Shrewsbury – Calling themselves “Community Supporters for Shrewsbury,” a group of concerned citizens have filed paperwork to form a ballot question committee to advocate for a Proposition 2? override in Shrewsbury. Comprised of six co-chairs, Chris Coghlin, Joyce Danielson, Mel Gordon, Robert “Bob” Holland, Ken Largess, Clint Mills, Treasurer Kathleen Keohane, and led by Chair Beth Casavant, the committee is already hard at work and has recruited well over 100 supporters.
“We'se not waiting,” said Casavant. “We are in full campaign mode.”
But while already busy recruiting support for their cause, the decision to put an override on the ballot still hangs in the balance. According to Town Manager Daniel Morgado, no decision by the Board of Selectmen has been made.
On January 24, Morgado presented his Fiscal Year 2105 recommended budget to the Board of Selectmen as required by the Town Manager's Act. At that time, the budget totaled $103,314,357 with the recommended education budget equal to $52,833,962, approximately $7 million less than the $59,840,852 requested by the School Department.
Accompanying that initial recommended budget was the following comment by Morgado:
“The budget I file today is insufficient to meet the needs of this community and is based on very optimistic assumptions I have made relative to revenue and charges. The Capital Budget proposed is inadequate to keep pace with our public facility and highway infrastructure and staffing levels need to be improved in public buildings, police, fire, highway and parks. The recommended school budget is also inadequate to meet the challenges and expectations facing the School Department.”
For Casavant and her team, the issue is about more than raising Shrewsbury's tax rate; it's about what kind of community Shrewsbury wants to be. Casavant says it an overall revenue problem that affects the town's core services and is particularly noticeable in how it affects Shrewsbury's schools.
“The current schools are excellent,” said Casavant, “but we are starting to see the cracks.”
Fellow members of the Ballot Question Committee agree.
“The foundation of Shrewsbury's future needs to be laid out and set now,” said Holland. “Whether through revitalized public works infrastructure, ensured retirement benefits for dedicated employees, synergistic classroom opportunities for our youth and/or safety net support for our seniors. Our citizens need to face reality and realize we have slipped precipitously behind in funding vital demands, which can only be righted through a successful override initiative.”
“I am a part of this effort now because I believe every child is entitled to have access to a good education,” said Gordon, a longtime resident and Town Meeting Member.
Largess is the former Shrewsbury High School assistant principal.
“Our community has rightly supported the capital projects to provide adequate space in which to educate our students,” he said. “The challenge now is to fund our school system in a manner that allows us to restore teachers to right the overwhelming class sizes and purchase educational materials that support the current curriculum demands.”
But not all of Shrewsbury's residents agree.
Christopher W. Kirk, chair of the group, Shrewsbury for Responsible Taxation (SRT), said there are several arguments against the override, including poor management by the School Department, continuing to give teacher raises through a prolonged recession, a higher special education budget than the state average, and the continued practice of spending more than available revenues can support.
“The override would not solve the central problem that has plagued the school system and the town for years,” said Kirk. “That problem is the increases in expenditures by the School Department. The problem in the Shrewsbury schools is not lack of money; it is misallocation of staff and chronic spending in excess of available revenues.”
Another override opponent is Stephen Meola, who is also a Town Meeting Member.
“Shrewsbury has a staff of over 700.? This is a larger number than most Massachusetts schools that are the size of Shrewsbury, yet the School Department wants to add 82 more staff using the override,” he said. “That is far beyond any reasonable justification.”
“Over the last several years, the School Department has significantly reduced the number of classroom teachers while maintaining the same overall staff headcount,” he added. “This is wrong.? It has increased some class sizes to 30 and more.? We need the staff to be made up of more teachers like it used to be.”
But Casavant, a former elementary school teacher and a mother of fifth- and second-graders, said, “I have lived in many communities, but none of them have ever felt like home the way that Shrewsbury does. A community is built on the reputation of its schools, and the reputation of the Shrewsbury schools is being threatened by our current financial situation.”
Is Shrewsbury any different than surrounding communities?? Not according to Kirk who said that Shrewsbury is just ahead of the game.
“Shrewsbury differs from other towns only in that it has arrived earlier at the place where other cities and towns in the state will ultimately arrive – as long as they continue to agree to unsustainable contracts with their unions, and as long as they continue to operate expensive special education programs,” said Kirk.
Regarding the decision to put an override on the ballot, Morgado noted in an email, “I am scheduled to file a budget update on April 11 and the board will consider my filing and then decide on how best to proceed. The matter of an override is a question of policy that lies solely with the Board of Selectmen. I will take my direction from the board.”
If the selectmen vote to put an override on the ballot, Kirk says a second ballot question committee will be formed by SRT, opposing the override.
For more on this issue, visit http://communityadvocate.com/2014/03/20/selectmen-318/.