Just Say ‘No’ on May 27

22May08

Vote NO on Wakefield, MA school budget

In next Tuesday’s referendum election on the $27.4 million School Department budget, the only vote that make sense is a “No” vote.
Election sign
This conclusion has nothing to do with the value of education, the needs of the Wakefield School Department or the sincerity of the School Committee. It has everything to do with arithmetic. The town of Wakefield, Massachusetts simply doesn’t have the money to fund the school budget at this level, and those who support this amount have not come forward to tell us where they think the town is going to get the money.

It all goes back to January of this year, when the town’s early estimates revealed a likely FY09 deficit of nearly $1.3 million. That anticipated deficit figure has fluctuated slightly, but has remained in the $1 million range. Consequently, all town departments were asked to submit FY09 budgets that were about 2.2 percent lower than the prior fiscal year in order to enable the town to balance its total budget, as required by law.

The Police Department submitted a budget that was $90,000 lower than FY08. The Fire Department did the same. The DPW cut $86,000.

Due to the financial realities, almost every town department was willing, however reluctantly, to trim its budget.

One wasn’t.

The School Department, which comprises 60 percent of the overall town operating budget, did not come in with a reduced budget. They did not come in with a level-funded budget. They brought forth a budget that was 8 percent higher than last year, and more than $2 million higher than recommended by the Finance Committee.

The Board of Selectmen again urged the School Committee to cut. So did the Finance Committee. FinCom Chairman Dan Sherman, not exactly a fiscal conservative, called the school budget “fiscally irresponsible.”

At last month’s Annual Town Meeting, school supporters packed the Galvin School auditorium and passed the $27.4 million School Department budget. To date, supporters of that school budget still have not proposed a way to finance it.

Following Town Meeting, a group of citizens exercised their right under the Town Charter and collected the 200 signatures required to petition the Selectmen to call a special referendum election on the school budget passed by Town Meeting. That election is scheduled for next Tuesday, May 27. If a majority votes “No,” then the Town Meeting vote will be voided and the school budget will revert to its FY08 level of $25,980,430.

Assuming that happens, the town will still be faced with a deficit of $851,602. That’s because the School Department was asked to reduce its budget by 2 percent like every other department. So a school budget reduced to level-funding by the referendum is still $558,000 higher than the town can afford.

In addition, Town Meeting put back all the money that had been cut from departments like the Police, Fire and DPW – essentially negating all their efforts to live with their means.

So, even supposing a majority votes “No” on May 27, the town will still have an overall budget that is $851,602 more than it can afford. That means one of two things: an override attempt or more cuts.

Was this a pre-meditated strategy by school supporters? Did they push for a school budget that was more than $2 million higher than recommended knowing that it would likely be rejected in a referendum, making a subsequent override attempt for $851,602 look almost palatable by comparison?

It’s hard to know, because the silence coming from those who supported the higher school budget has been deafening. They haven’t identified a source for any of the additional funds or given much indication of what’s on their minds.

Therefore, only one course of action makes any financial or mathematical sense on Tuesday. Vote “No.”

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