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Needham

Voters to consider $1.5m tax increase to fund schools

When Needham voters go to the polls on Tuesday for the annual town election, they will be asked to consider raising taxes to help fund the school district for the first time since 2009.

The requested Proposition 2½ override would assess an additional $1.5 million in real estate and personal property taxes to pay for an extended school day at elementary and middle schools, and give staff in all of the district’s schools more preparation time during and after school. The additional funds would also restore previously cut programs, such as elementary school Spanish, music, and physical education, and add offerings for elementary school students that would include technology improvements and increased arts education.

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If the operating override passes, the annual tax bill for a single-family home with the town’s average assessed value, $753,021, would increase by $143, according to David Davison, Needham’s assistant town manager and director of finance.

In 2009, Needham residents passed a $27.4 million debt-exclusion override — which allows communities to temporarily raises taxes until a construction bond or other debt is repaid — to pay for renovations to the Newman School. A $1.9 million general override of Proposition 2½’s limits on tax increases was passed in 2008 to open the High Rock School as a sixth-grade learning center, after a debt-exclusion override in 2007 provided $21 million for the school’s reconstruction.

There have been about 20 overrides for the school system on the ballot since 1991. Superintendent Daniel E. Gutekanst said district officials and the School Committee don’t ask for them lightly.

“The School Committee has been very thoughtful and very mindful of anything they do; they recognize it will impact taxpayers and certainly the economy appears to slowly be recovering,” he said. “They’ve been cautious about that and I think prudent and collaborative with town boards, particularly with the Finance Committee, as they try to pull this together.”

Finance Committee members, however, have expressed concern over the latest request in public meetings, saying that the tax increase could have been avoided with more foresight.

‘Needham is a town where we’re very committed to the public schools, and we pay quite a bit more than comparable communities do.’

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Chairman Richard Lunetta couldn’t be reached last week for comment, but according to the minutes of the Finance Committee’s Feb. 12 meeting, he said during the session that the School Committee and Board of Selectmen needed to improve communication with the panel.

When contacted by phone last month, Finance Committee member Richard Zimbone declined to comment, but the Feb. 12 minutes state that he has been “upfront with his frustration with the process.”

The minutes said he felt the override could have been avoided if the Board of Selectmen hadn’t restructured the recycling transfer station sticker fee for residents.

“Mr. Zimbone stated that the Finance Committee did not know about the Board of Selectmen’s idea of eliminating $640K of sticker fee revenue . . . and taking that from the Town,” the minutes state. “If the Finance Committee had known about it, they could have stopped it and prevented the override.”

Ultimately the School Committee and Finance Committee worked together to reduce the original proposal to seek a $2.1 million override to the $1.5 million figure on Tuesday’s ballot.

Board of Selectmen chairman Daniel Matthews said the comments at the Feb. 12 meeting represent the Finance Committee’s members doing their job by asking tough questions.

“We have a decentralized role of government and the Finance Committee plays its roles and one of those roles is to kick the tires and say, ‘If we are going to the ballot it should be for the right amount,’ ” Matthews said in a telephone interview.

“There was not agreement across the board . . . Basically the process worked and where there are things that didn’t go quite as well, we’re doing better.”

Matthews defended the reduction in the fee for access to the town’s recycling transfer station.

“That will help ordinary citizens going forward,” he said. “We had a lot of discussions about that in January and February running up to making the decision to put the override on the ballot.

“Needham is a town where we’re very committed to the public schools and we pay quite a bit more than comparable communities do. And that’s why when you come to something like this, that requires extra funding the School Committee thinks are necessary, that’s when you go to the voters.”

School Committee chairman Joe Barnes said its members spent significant time talking about the override proposal and debating its merits. He said the discussion began at the end of last summer.

“This is not something that was a knee-jerk reaction,” he said.

“We talked about adding additional time to the school day as well as restoring and creating new programming for some time. A plan is in place to review the curriculum every year going back 10 years. Each time the review process said there were needs to improve and change,’' Barnes said. “This is a result of that as well as a result of what we’ve heard over the last 10 years.”

A campaign to promote the Proposition 2½ override, called YES for Needham Schools, officially formed in February but had been in the works since the fall, said Andrea Carter, who helped organize the group.

“I know these people,” the mother of two elementary school students said of the School Committee members. “They are not taking this step lightly. They worked hard with the Finance Committee.

“Our message now is people need to go out and vote on April 8. I feel, obviously, very strongly that these are great proposals, great changes for our schools, and if people are like minded they can’t expect their neighbor or friend to go and vote.’’

Carter said that her group has been telling residents, “You need to go, everyone needs to go and support this if you feel these are things the schools should have.”

Justin A. Rice can be reached at rice.ju@gmail.com.
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