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Dracut debates whether $2.9m school override is too much

A divided Dracut Board of Selectmen on July 16 is slated to discuss a hotly contested proposal to raise local property taxes for the benefit of the town’s public schools and to decide whether the $2.9 million override approved by Town Meeting earlier this month — or a much smaller tax hike — should be considered by voters in a special election.

Voicing a desire to protect Dracut homeowners and small-business owners, Cathy Richardson, chairwoman of the five-member board, and member Joseph DiRocco Jr. are seeking public input before setting the override amount.

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A $2.9 million override would boost the annual property tax bill by $1.04 per $1,000 in assessed value, Richardson said. The owner of the average single-family home in Dracut, which is assessed at $268,199, would see an annual tax bill increase of $279. The average single-family tax bill is currently $3,698.

Lowering the amount is an option “at least worth discussion,” Richardson said Monday, noting that although proponents of the override have done a great job rallying support “with twits and tweets,” she’s not convinced they represent the majority of Dracut residents.

“The folks that are not privy to social media, like the elderly, also have a voice. And as selectmen we have to make sure everyone’s voice in town is heard,” she said. “The people I speak with, for the most part, are not in favor of the override.”

‘A good school system is what people look for when they’re looking for a new home.’ Kelly Petka, resident

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By voice vote, a majority of the 977 voters who attended the June 3 Town Meeting approved an article calling for a $2.9 million appropriation for Dracut’s public schools, contingent on the passage of an override, or permanent tax increase. Town Meeting also approved a separate $200,000 override for Dracut’s police, fire, and public works departments.

With the override amount up in the air, the special election on the tax hike proposals is not expected to take place until mid-September, after the start of the new school year. Town Clerk Kathleen M. Graham said her office needs at least 35 days to prepare for a special election.

At the board’s last meeting, DiRocco suggested the selectmen consider a smaller override for the schools, noting that Town Manager Dennis E. Piendak had recommended $550,000. That proposal was rejected by Town Meeting.

“I think maybe by this being out there publicly, we might get a little more input from the public and help us make a decision on what’s the best way to go,” DiRocco said at the selectmen’s June 11 meeting, noting that some Dracut homeowners must choose between paying for medication and buying food.

“One of the things that wasn’t talked about a lot at Town Meeting but certainly is prevalent is the fact that most of the small businesses here in town are owned by folks who also live in town, and so those folks are going to be hit twice” if an override is passed, Richardson said, since the taxes on both their residential and commercial properties would increase. The timing of the ballot question is particularly difficult because property owners are already facing sewer and water rate hikes and temporary tax increases to pay for the town’s share of a $65 million upgrade of Greater Lowell Technical High School and a $59.96 million renovation of Dracut High School.

Another tax hike “may make or break a local business,” she said.

Proponents of the question believe the $2.9 million override is needed to adequately fund the town’s public schools. They are quick to point out that the $29.7 million school department operating budget, which calls for a $1.4 million increase, would not restore programs and positions lost to budget cuts in previous years.

The town’s $67 million spending plan for fiscal 2014, which begins July 1, calls for a $392,500 increase for the town’s public schools.

“A good school system is what people look for when they’re looking for a new home,” said Kelly Petka of “Stand Up for Dracut,” a committee formed last month to support the override proposal.

Superintendent Steven Stone, who assumed leadership of the 3,872-student district on Aug. 1, 2012 — just two months after his predecessor eliminated 54 positions, including 21 classroom teachers, or nearly 10 percent of the teaching staff — said the school system is currently facing a deficit “north of $200,000.”

“We believe we’ll be able to deal with that deficit by cutting expenses,” said Stone, noting that there will likely be cuts to the athletic department, maintenance budget, and textbook purchases. “Our job was to try to hold the line this year, to avoid further reductions, and to pay it forward to some degree until the economy gets better. I think we’ve met that goal. We’re not anticipating any layoffs.”

Meanwhile, both sides are gearing up for battle. The “Vote No on Override” committee, led by Dracut businessman Ted Kosiavelon, has ordered 100 yellow “Vote No” lawn signs. Stand Up for Dracut is calling on supporters to attend the July 16 selectmen’s meeting to show support for the override amount approved by Town Meeting.

“Dracut is looking to progress and move an educational agenda forward,” said School Committee member Joseph Wilkie, who together with fellow School Committee member Dan O’Connell proposed the $2.9 million override.

At least one selectman has expressed support for keeping the override proposal intact.

“I am not comfortable at all even thinking of doing something that is not the will of Town Meeting; Town Meeting is the legislative body of our town,” said Anthony Archinski, who was elected to his first term in April. “I don’t think the townspeople should worry that the question won’t be put on the ballot the way Town Meeting intended, because I think the majority of the board will ensure that it is.”

Brenda J. Buote may be reached at brenda.buote@gmail.com.

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