By Tracy F. Seelye, Express editor
HANSON — Both towns will be voting on contingency, or “lump sum” articles at town meetings to fund the fiscal 2017 school budget, which depends on a single override question passing at the ballot box should town meeting voters support such a move.
While Whitman Selectmen were voting to place a $1,726,588 ballot question for its share of the assessment increase in the $49,714,344 WHRSD operating budget on Tuesday, April 5, Hanson Selectmen were discussing their options with town counsel in a meeting attended by the School Committee, its attorney and an overflowing crowd of interested residents.
With a successful override, Whitman’s assessment would be $12,719,345.
The 20.15-percent local assessment increase includes 3.5-percent hike inside the levy limit with the balance contingent on a Proposition 2 ½ override in both communities. The total increase outside the levy is $3 million, apportioned based on student population.
In the end, the Hanson Board of Selectmen voted 3-2 to place a $1,241,141 article and ballot question for its share of the increased assessment, which would raise the town’s assessment to $8,956,207. Selectmen Don Howard, Kenny Mitchell and Bill Scott voted to place the contingency article while James McGahan joined Selectmen Chairman Bruce Young in preferring a tiered question. That option would have broken the override total into several layers of financial options for funding the school budget.
Town Counsel Jay Talerman and School Committee attorney James Toomey agreed last week via conference call that the tiered option is legal, but Talerman cautioned it could have “unintended consequences.”
“My experience with pyramid overrides — take it for what it’s worth — is it doesn’t usually work out the way you think it would,” he said. “There are a lot of unintended consequences. The no votes tend to pile up pretty quickly. There’s a lot of uncertainty.”
The state recommends an explanatory phrase that the highest amount voted yes to on a pyramid, or tiered, question will be the operative amount.
That was a main reason McGahan found a tiered question preferable.
“There’s a lot of pressure here tonight for us to vote it one way,” McGahan said of the contingency article and question. “You don’t understand that, with the pyramid approach, there’s a good chance you could get the $1.2 million. It’s something to think about.”
Young had framed some sample questions for Selectmen to discuss, including one that offered funding choices from between $1.2 million down to $1,000. He did not support the contingency question for that reason.
“I believe people should have a choice,” Young said. “I represent all the people in Hanson. I support education in the town of Hanson, but I like to go with a choice of what people are willing to give back to the school system.”
Resident John Barata asked if a tiered approach would become the “new norm” for overrides in town. Young replied the only reason it was being sought now is because this was the first time the option was explained to them. McGahan said it was unlikely to come up much in the future.
Selectman Don Howard, a Hanson resident since 1948, said he built his house in 1960, eight years after graduating high school from the Indian Head School — and has seen three children and six grandchildren attend W-H schools.
“I feel, as an adult, I’m responsible for the children in our town,” Howard said. “All the [tax] money I’ve spent, I’m glad I spent it. … There are a lot of people in town that don’t want to pay for the schools, and I understand that, because the tax burden in town is getting quite high. … I believe in doing everything for the children.”
Had Hanson Selectmen approved the pyramid question while Whitman’s voters were faced with a contingency question, it would send the question back to the School Committee — just as would happen if one town approves an override while the other defeats it. The School Committee would then recertify its budget and has the option of coming back with the same figures.
Should that occur and the towns split decisions a second time, the issue would go before a so-called Super Town Meeting.
Ironing out some of those wrinkles is why the two boards sought out legal opinions.
“We narrowed the scope of what you all can talk about and discuss, in terms of whether it’s a single number or a few different numbers,” Talerman said of the conference call.
He said the menu option discussed last week was ruled out as something better used for municipal overrides and Town Meeting votes only on the school budget’s bottom-line figure.
“The purpose of the ballot question isn’t to appropriate anything, it’s just to increase your levy limit,” Talerman said. “Attorney Toomey and I are in agreement that you can’t confine the schools’ line items in their budget.”
He said using the menu option, as explanatory material would be instructive for voters, but added the schools must be able to spend their bottom-line figure where it is most needed.
“There may be an opportunity below the ballot question to provide some explanatory material, subject to the restrictions of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, but I’m concerned — and I think Attorney Toomey is concerned as well — as to putting [the menu of Student Success budget elements] it in a ballot question itself,” Talerman said. “I think there’s plenty of opportunities to educate the public.”
A School Department breakdown of where new staff hired under the Student Success budget shows an equitable distribution between the two towns.
“I think that’s terrific,” McGahan said.
After reading into the record some social media posts critical of some of the selectmen, McGahan said he did agree with one post arguing that if the public is expected to trust the School Committee regarding the need for the Student Success budget, they should also trust selectmen on how to fund it.
“I don’t think those comments reflect every single person in this room,” School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes said. “I don’t think there’s anybody on the School Committee … or any of the citizens of the town who don’t trust every single person in this room.
Hayes noted that, as an elected board, the School Committee’s job is to advocate for the education of children.
“The citizens of the town don’t know the system’s broke if we don’t come forward,” he said.
McGahan suggested selectmen are also elected to do the School Committee’s job as well as governing the town, which elicited a loud chorus of disagreement from the audience.
“I have the right to care about what goes [on there],” he responded. “I’ve got three kids going to the schools, too — just like anybody else — as a citizen, absolutely, but also as a selectman to make sure that our kids are taken care of in our schools.”
Hayes acknowledged that all public officials are doing the best they can to help schools but that the towns people should have the opportunity to vote on whether or not they want to fund that mission, as voters are the ultimate funding authority.