With tax override defeated, Newton leaders fear student impacts
Newton voters split on three ballot questions during a special election on Tuesday. Residents agreed to a temporary tax increase to overhaul two elementary schools but declined a Proposition 2 1/2 tax override that some officials said was needed to prevent cuts to student programs and even personnel.
The outcome for questions 2 and 3 came down to a relatively close margin: 52% of voters were in favor of a debt exclusion for Countryside and Franklin Elementary Schools, according to unofficial results.
Tamika Olszewski, chair of the school committee, said she was happy the schools would get desperately needed attention.
But voters turned away a request for a larger, permanent increase to the levy limit that would close the school district’s $6 million budget gap, with 53% — or 10,566 people — voting “no” on the question.
“It’s just going to be crushingly disappointing for much of our staff and our students,” Olszewski said. “Any reduction in budget of the magnitude that we’re talking about here is going to impact our student experience. And that’s really a tragedy.”
Interim Superintendent Kathleen Smith said she projects a substantial impact to student services after the failed override vote, including a 10% cut across student extracurricular activities.
"All the things that have been so richly enjoyed by Newton students for generations are going to see some impact at that level,” Smith said.
Tuesday’s vote precedes the arrival of a new district superintendent this July and expiration of a contract with the Newton Teachers Association in August.
“The educators of Newton should not be asked to subsidize the schools by accepting a contract that is less than they deserve,” said Michael Zilles, president of the Newton Teachers Association, following the vote. “They did not vote ‘no’ on our contract. They did not vote ‘no’ on our educators.”
Smith said she’s monitoring the vote’s impact on negotiations and will give a more thorough budget presentation to the school committee later this month.
“We’re presently in bargaining and we’re going to do the very best we can to remain competitive, but it certainly will put a strain on the process,” Smith said.
A portion of the rejected override funds would have been used for an addition to the Horace Mann Elementary School, according to the city’s website. Olszewski and Smith said they hope to make plans with the city to continue with the project.
The split vote on the ballot is what the Charles River Regional Chamber had recommended residents pick in a statement prior to the vote. Chamber president Greg Reibman said it was a difficult recommendation for the chamber to make.
“Just as businesses have had to tighten their belts and make some tough decisions about how they spend their money, we were asking the city of Newton to do the same thing,” Reibman said. “We just felt that this was the wrong time.”
The chamber did urge a “yes” vote on the debt exclusions.
Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller praised the approval of the debt exclusions to fund improvements to two elementary schools.
“I am excited for the students who will have better learning environments at these two great new facilities,” Fuller said in a statement. “These new schools are long overdue and will be terrific additions to our city.”
“This was a difficult time to ask people to raise their taxes,” she added. “I believed, and still believe, that it was right and important for Newtonians to have the choice and vote.”
City Councilor-at-Large Leonard Gentile opposed both the override and debt exclusions for the elementary schools prior to the vote. He said the city has a substantial amount of cash on hand.
“There’s money there, is the point that I was trying to make prior to the vote,” Gentile said. “Now it’s time for us to be prepared to use some of that money.”
He also urged caution on predictions of the schools’ cuts, and said he thinks some of the points individuals say could happen might not.
“The number one strategy when you’re trying to get an override done is you predict that the sky is going to fall,” Gentile said. “And I find that troubling.”
City Councilor-at-Large Alison Leary was in favor of a “yes” vote on all three ballot questions. She disagreed with the claim that there was excess money in the budget and was disappointed in the results Tuesday night.
“It was like a gut punch for me when I heard about it,” she said, adding that planning for the next fiscal year will be difficult.
“The Newton schools are just a very important fabric in our communities and our neighborhoods,” Leary said. “It’s just getting increasingly difficult to please everybody.”