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Newton voters reject tax increase for city, public education Tuesday

During same ballot vote, residents did approve bonding for projects to rebuild two elementary schools

Newton residents will go to the polls Tuesday to decide on a nearly $15 million tax increase for the city's schools and municipal budget, as well as a pair of school building projects.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

NEWTON — Voters rejected a nearly $9.2 million property tax increase for the city and its public education system Tuesday, following a months-long campaign by advocates who argued the money was urgently needed to support a wide array of local programs, infrastructure upgrades, and services for residents.

During the same ballot vote, residents did approve $5.8 million in bonding for rebuilding the aging Countryside and Franklin elementary schools, according to unofficial results Tuesday night.

The three ballot questions were proposed under the state’s Proposition 2 1/2, which caps local tax collections unless overridden by voters.

According to unofficial results Tuesday night, the override question failed: 9,428 voters supported it, while 10,566 voters cast their ballots against it.

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The debt exclusion questions for the two schools succeeded with similar totals. Countryside passed with 10,430 votes in favor, and 9,453 against it. Voters backed the Franklin project 10,461 to 9,427, according to unofficial results.

The city reported 20,027 of Newton’s 58,676 registered voters cast ballots on the tax increase questions.

For a single-family home assessed at the city’s median value of roughly $1.2 million, property taxes will increase by $183 annually as bonding is put in place for the school projects over the next several years, officials have said.

The questions sparked debate in Newton. As the city emerges from the pandemic into a period of deep economic uncertainty, critics argued city officials should work within the existing budgets to ease the financial strain on residents. But supporters of the effort said that Newton — and particularly its schools — need those extra resources now more than ever.

Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, now into her second, four-year term, urged voters to approve the funding increases “to support our next generation” of residents.

“Now is the time to invest in our children,” Fuller said. “It’s been a difficult period for them. Their needs have increased. Our supports have expanded. We need to keep those in place, particularly at this troubling time.”

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Mark Cestari, who has worked with a ballot committee opposing the tax hike, argued that Newton is already an expensive city to live in and that raising taxes will put greater pressure on the city’s working class and fixed-income residents.

“Newton prides itself on wanting to be diverse,” Cestari said. “The best way to keep Newton diverse is to keep it affordable.”

Tuesday’s override question would have permanently increased taxes to fund improvement projects for things such as roads, parks, and athletic fields. There would be expansions in senior services, planting of new trees, and the conversion of public buildings from fossil fuels to electric. It also includes money for work on the Horace Mann Elementary School.

The funding would have added $4.5 million to the schools budget for more mental health services for students in the aftermath of the pandemic, plus more academic programs and learning technology. It would also cover growing costs for utilities, transportation, and health insurance for employees.

“Newton is our home, and we want what’s best for it,” said Christine Dutt, who is part of a ballot question committee to support the tax increase. “It’s important to have reliable and recurring sources of money.”

Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, Interim Superintendent Kathleen Smith said that the schools could see a shortfall of up to $6 million next year without an override. That would force cutbacks in services and reductions in staffing, including some educator positions, which would increase class sizes, she has said.

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Smith had said the additional money to the schools was critical for continuing their services, particularly as they support a generation of students coming out of the pandemic, Smith said.

“I understand that this is a sacrifice for many, many homes and families. But it’s a sacrifice that is worth it,” Smith said.

Newton Public Schools is in the midst of an enrollment decline. The district reported 11,717 students as of Oct. 1, a decrease of 93 students from the previous year, according to an enrollment report released in January. In the fall of 2019, before the pandemic, there were 12,611 students in Newton’s public schools.

The decline is one that mirrors a drop in the headcount of public schools across the state. In Newton, the report projected enrollment will continue to decline over the next few years.

Opponents have pointed to this local trend as one reason for not supporting more funding for the school system, including Lynne LeBlanc, who has worked with a ballot question committee opposing the tax increase.

Newton’s schools are important but many students have left, and the schools must live within their budget, she said.

“Our excellence has gone down,” LeBlanc said. “From the perspective of many, it’s clear that money is not going to fix the problem.”

Among the critics of the tax proposal was longtime Councilor-at-large Leonard Gentile, who argued in a statement that the city should tap into its own resources before asking voters to greenlight a tax hike.

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The city has millions of dollars available in its coffers, said Gentile. The city has also approved thousands of units of new housing, and Newton will receive millions more from building permit fees and property taxes as those projects are built, he said.

“I have never seen the City in a stronger financial position than it is now,” Gentile said in the statement.

During vote Tuesday, residents who cast ballots at the Newton Free Library were divided on the proposed tax increase. Voters who spoke to the Globe each said they either cast a straight “yes” or “no” vote on all three questions.

Cheryl Vogel, 65, said she rejected the measures and expressed skepticism that the city spends its funds wisely. The city hasn’t focused on issues that impact residents, like the poor condition of many Newton roads — including her own street.

“They are great at patching, but it’s just awful,” Vogel said. “And it’s not just my street. It’s terrible.”

Steve Cantor of Newtonville also turned down the tax hike. He said the city did not do enough to demonstrate why it needs the extra money from taxpayers.

“We are presented with a false choice: either approve the override, or terrible things will happen,” Cantor said.

Craig Ostroff, 49, who opposed the proposal, said, “It’s a very expensive town to live in. It makes it unaffordable when they raise taxes.”

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Those who said they supported the tax increase, like John Bell, 57, of Newton Centre, pointed to the role the city’s schools play in the community.

“Public education is very important, and is the biggest driver for Newton’s prosperity and success,” Bell said.

Among the voters Tuesday was a current Newton Public Schools student — 18-year-old Jason Shapiro, who attends Newton North High School and said he backed the override.

“School systems should be important, no matter what. Kids are the future, and kids need to be great,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro said he had urged his friends to cast ballots, too. The extra funding would impact their lives, he said.

“I told them that they should vote — it’s really important,” Shapiro said.


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.