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Occasionally this spring, WBUR’s “Towns In Trouble” series is examining how the state budget crisis is reverberating in two Massachusetts communities: Hull and Gardner. Fred Thys revisits Hull, where residents are weighing an override to preserve threatened school activities.
HULL, Mass. — The town here stands at the end of the long arc of Boston Harbor. Its neighborhoods, clustered along a narrow strip of land, brave the open ocean. In her house two blocks from Boston's broadest sweep of sand, Nantasket Beach, Erika Steen talks about what brought her and her husband to Hull.
"The water," Steen said. "I love being by the ocean. It's a nice town. We used to come to Nantasket Beach over the summer and go swimming, and we just like the atmosphere."
Steen, a preschool teacher in Marshfield — three towns down the coast — and her husband, Brian, an IT engineer, have brought a bit of the beach inside their house. Where their living room wall meets the ceiling, a wallpaper frieze repeats a pattern of lighthouses and dunes. Although the house is so close to the beach, theirs is a year-round neighborhood.
"We have one seasonal neighbor, that's it," Brian said.
Hull has one of the smallest high schools in the state, and the Steens like it that way.
"They only have 90 kids in their class," Erika said. "They've all gone to school with each other since kindergarten. There's no cliques."
Erika is waiting anxiously for the big day — Monday — when the small town decides whether to override proposition 2 1/2 and raise property taxes to restore many school programs cut from the budget this year, including advanced placement classes, sports and theater. Erika is part of a group calling themselves the Drama Mommas. They raised $30,000 this year to keep theater alive at the middle and the high school. Brian is not sure they can do it again.
"Without getting the override, the programs are all gone, unless we can again raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for sports and the drama programs," Brian said. "The kids will be everywhere. They'll be walking all over the streets. They'll just be hanging out.
"It has to pass," Erika said. "These kids deserve a chance."
The Steens' eldest daughter, Alyssa — a sophomore playing the lead in a upcoming production of "Alice In Wonderland" — says many students keep their grades up so they can take part in after-school activities.
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"I know there are some people in all of the grades that feel like their drive in school is, 'I'm going to do well in school so I can have fun with my friends and do something on a team,' " Alyssa said.
"One of her friends a couple of years ago went from Ds and Fs in classes, and this year, he's off at college," Brian said. "He's got a decent scholarship. His final grade point average was honor roll. So it was a big change for him, all because they threatened him that he wouldn't be able to go to drama."
The override means a great deal to another family a few blocks away.
"I summered here my whole life," Lisa Jenkins said. "My parents were from here."
Jenkins is a pediatric nurse. To her and her middle daughter, Brittany, the former summer cottage in which they live means a lot.
"This house has a lot of history," Lisa said. "My grandparents rented this house, and my mother summered here with her cousins, then years later, it came on the market, and my parents bought it, and then a few years ago, my parents gave us the deed to the house."
"From there, we did a lot of work," Brittany said.
"It was a beach cottage," Lisa said. "It has a lot of history and a lot of meaning — more than just the four walls, that's for sure."
Lisa's husband, Paul, is a special education teacher in Hingham, the town up the coast. Their neighborhood is a microcosm of the changes the entire town is undergoing.
"Hull was always a blue-collar town, and I think now, it's changed, it's changing, and so the schools were always like, 'Who cares?' " Paul said. "Most of the kids didn't go to college 10, 20 years ago in this town. Now, it's changing. People want a good education. They need to get to a good school."
Hull High School ranks among the top third in the state in MCAS results. In the science exam, Hull's 10th graders outperformed students from its much wealthier neighbor, Cohasset. Lisa and Paul don't want to see that progress disappear.
"It's also the town's future," Paul said. "If the schools are good and the scores are good and the kids are going off to great universities, people will want to come into town."
"The values of their homes stay high," Lisa added.
Lisa works seven days a week. Despite that, she makes time to be head Drama Momma. She chairs the board of the Hull Theater Arts group that's raised all the money to keep drama going this year. Her daughter, Brittany, is also in the production of "Alice In Wonderland," as Queen of Hearts.
"Theater is probably one of the more important things in my life," Brittany said. "I wait to plan my week around what the rehearsal schedule is going to be."
If the town doesn't pass the override, the Jenkins family will work to raise the money for theater, as they did this year. But it's a small town, and most people don't have much money, and so they wonder how long they can tap into the same neighbors' generosity.
This program aired on May 14, 2010.
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