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With trims in school budget, Wellesley officials say tax hike request unlikely this year

Town may not seek tax hike

After a year of anticipation that a property tax increase would be necessary to avoid drastic cuts in Wellesley’s school programs, better-than-expected budget figures appear to have eliminated the need for a Proposition 2 1/2 override.

The School Committee last week approved a $62,640,548 spending plan for the coming fiscal year that preserves programs at all the town’s schools - and adds a few enhancements - while meeting the guidelines set by the Board of Selectmen.

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The committee trimmed $663,205 from the figure initially recommended by Superintendent Bella Wong in January to meet the selectmen’s threshold to avoid asking for a tax increase.

“The exact figures are still fluid, we’re still fine-tuning,’’ said Hans Larsen, Wellesley’s executive director. “No final decision has been made, but it appears unlikely we will have to go with an override,’’

He said this year’s funding from the state came in higher than budgeted, and next year’s appears to again be higher than projected. In addition, he said, health insurance premiums did not climb as high as expected, and the mild winter has saved the town cash budgeted for snow removal.

That all combined to allow selectmen to reconsider the anticipated need for a $5 million override this year, and determine that modest budget increases in town and school spending could be paid from the town’s reserve fund.

“We’re in good shape,’’ School Committee chairwoman Suzy Littlefield said Tuesday night.

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In recent years there had been months of debate over proposed cuts in the school budget, with tension between the schools and other town departments.

This year, the start of the budget process was delayed by changes in the School Department. Wong announced in November that she would resign at the end of the school year, and business manager Ruth Quinn Berdell went on voluntary paid administrative leave later that month.

Recently, however, the process moved forward as school and town officials worked together, Littlefield said.

“It was really a situation where all hands were on deck,’’ she said. “There was a great deal more transparency in the budget process this year.’’

Larsen agreed that the process went smoothly this year.

“A lot of people have worked together differently than in the past,’’ he said. “The process has been transparent, productive, and effective.’’

In order to meet the figure targeted by selectmen, the School Committee trimmed approximately $372,525 from its proposed capital budget, including eliminating a surveillance system for the middle school and postponing some building maintenance projects.

In addition, it used salary adjustments, unused funds from last year’s capital budget, a reduction in special education tuition costs, the elimination of 11 teaching assistant positions, and the reintroduction of student parking fees at the new high school, once the parking lot is complete next winter, to hit selectmen’s budget target.

The committee was able to add some programs, including a math intervention specialist, a current events elective, a girls’ volleyball team, and a wrestling team at the middle school. A junior varsity golf team and an additional ski coach were added at the high school, along with an additional section of AP computer programming, an advisory block director, and two introduction to Spanish I/II sections.

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