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This spring, WBUR is examining how the state budget crisis is reverberating in cities and towns across Massachusetts. In Gardner, budget cuts are "amputating" a once-thriving small city. In Hull, students and parents have been forced to pay for extracurricular activities themselves. Fred Thys revisits Hull ahead of a critical vote later this month — whether to approve a property tax increase.
HULL, Mass. — In his family room, Greg Whelan, a young father of four, told a group of young mothers what a tax increase would buy.
"It's a ton of AP classes that come in," Whelan said. "We're opening the wood shop. We're opening the metal shop. We're talking about bringing back foreign language to the middle school."
But the mothers see a big hurdle to getting those new classes. They think Hull has an inferiority complex and sees itself as a working-class place where the schools will never measure up to its two tony neighbors, Hingham and Cohasset. Two of the mothers, Amy Hyde and Laurie McDowell, don't think that inferiority complex is justified.
Some residents think Hull has an inferiority complex — a place where the schools will never measure up to those of its neighbors.
"It's like, who's the 'Saturday Night Live' character?" McDowell said. "You know? I believe in myself — what does he say?"
Hyde knew it: "'I like me. Dog-gone it, I like me.' "
"Yeah," McDowell said. "We need to have a love-in or something."
"It's OK to be smart," adds another mother, to laughter.
One mother points out that despite the budget cuts, the town does well on the MCAS exam. The high school is in the top third in the state on the English, math and science tests.
Another, Michelle Proud, believes that if the town would only fund the schools, more parents would be drawn to Hull because it's a great place to raise kids.
"In so many ways, we're a little bit isolated and protected by being this small town at the end of the Earth here," Proud said. (Hull is a series of glacial islands, called drumlins, each linked to the next by a sand bar.)
"I think that once our image of our school system makes that swing, I think you're going to start seeing the schools being more populated," Proud said. She argues that the property tax increase is a small price to pay for better schools.
"Our house is valued at about $300,000," Proud said. "Our portion would be $89 a quarter. I mean, I pay more than $89 a month for my cell phone."
"Some people have that money, but some people don't," said Carrie Nath, another at the meeting. "I was thinking of an old neighbor of mine who literally is living from whatever Social Security check, barely making it."
"We can't stay under the radar forever."-- Parent Mike Fleming, who favors the property tax increase
The big political bind for these parents is that if they campaign too visibly for raising property taxes, all the people who oppose or can't afford an increase will show up at the polls later this month and put a stop to it. So the parents have been holding strategy meetings at their homes and the middle school to prepare for the vote. At one, Mike Fleming, Marianne Hart and Mark Beacher disagree over whether they should use Monday night's town meeting to push their cause.
"Thought we were just talking to parents," Beacher said. "If you go in front of the town meeting, then you're getting it out to everybody, which is what we were trying to be kind of, like, discreet about, weren't we?" Hart shares the same thoughts: "I'm very hesitant about handing anything out at town meeting," she said.
"We can't stay under the radar forever," Fleming said.
They decide they will campaign for the tax increase at Monday's town meeting. Some parents are so worried about tipping off the opposition they argue about things like how soon they should start planting lawn signs.
"A week before, like, it's game time," Whelan said.
"Signs are great, actually," Fleming said. "And maybe like two weeks in front, because if you look back at Scott Brown, maybe a week or two before the election, you started seeing more and more Scott Brown signs, and you're driving around, and after a while, there's Scott Brown signs everywhere, and everyone that day of the election knew who was going to win."
But Hart differs on the strategy. "What we had learned, in the towns that had passed their overrides, was do not do signs, 'cause all you're doing is reminding the 'No' votes to get out there and vote."
Even though they concede they'll remind the 'No' votes to get out there, the parents decided that getting the 'Yes' votes out is worth rolling out the lawn signs. But they agreed to wait until a couple of weeks before the vote.
Correction: The online version of this story incorrectly called the parents' meetings "private." We have corrected the error.
This program aired on May 3, 2010.
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