By Katina Caraganis
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A proposed Proposition 2 1/2 override for the North Middlesex Regional School District to cover increased costs in the district's operating budget was decisively put down at the polls Thursday.
In Ashby, 189 voters voted yes on the ballot while 430 said no, there were 576 yes votes in Townsend and 1,306 no votes, and 691 said yes in Pepperell while 1,155 said no.
The School Committee approved a needs budget in March that was $1.38 million more than a level-services budget, which constitutes an increase of $3.4 million, or 7.8 percent, over the current year's budget.
Each of the three member towns voted to approve the funding mechanism at their respective Town Meetings earlier this year.
In Townsend, the override amount would have been $1,366,119, and carried an estimated annual increase of $421 to an average single-family home assessed at $248,492.
Ashby residents were looking at $469,000, which carries an estimated annual increase of $346 to an average single-family home assessed at $212,248.
Pepperell residents would have shouldered the brunt of the cost at $1,691,653, or $441 a year for the average home assessed at $301,105.
School Committee member Jonna Clermont, of
"We have to keep our eye on the prize, which is the children. I don't think this was because people don't support education. I am disappointed, but I don't think it's because they don't support kids," Clermont said Thursday night.
"I think the economic times are so volatile right now. People either don't have a job or are underemployed or are worrying about losing their jobs," she said. "We're going to need a new high school. I think people know that in the back of their minds. If we go through the budget carefully, I really believe we can make the necessary cuts that won't affect children."
She said that she's not ruling out the possibility of bringing another override forward.
"It might be that some people are willing to support some sort of override but not to this degree. This was a lot. We've identified areas where we need the most," she said. "I think it's good we've identified things long range so we can put a plan in place to get there. I think it's going to be a matter of prioritizing and being as efficient as possible with the taxpayers money."
Going into the budget process, Superintendent Maureen Marshall told the School Committee the district was facing a $933,095 revenue shortfall entering fiscal 2012. The district received $437,000 in stimulus funding for seven teaching positions.
The loss of revenue is coupled with an increase in current services, including $513,323 in estimated contractual increases, $432,884 in health benefits, $271,109 in technology and $183,757 in the superintendent's office to have a full-time superintendent and administrative assistant.
Additionally, Marshall estimated a $99,897 increase in athletics, $93,000 for a nurse and secretary at Squanacook Elementary School and a $55,000 increase in English-language learning.
Kirsty Benson moved to Pepperell last year from Las Vegas and said that she wanted to bring her children to a better school system.
"I am voting yes to support teaching our kids and moving our town forward. I think the town is divided on the issue," she said. "Nobody likes tax hikes, but they've been cutting from the schools for five years. It's time we said our kids are important.
Lillian Wamboldt, a senior living in Pepperell, said she was torn on how to vote in Thursday's election.
"It's important to come out to vote. I believe the School Committee has gotten what they want and need for many years. As for the School Committee, I think they should get some new people in there," she said. "I have a broken heart. I feel for the kids, but there is other money that could be spent. They don't need to have these fancy, fancy schools when there are schools that aren't being used, even for other things."
Townsend resident Ron Dionne was advocating for a no vote outside of Memorial Hall Thursday, saying that he instead supports sending the budget back to the schools to figure out a smaller budget to live within their means.
"I am thinking about the property owner. This increase is way above and beyond normal ones," he said. "The conversation doesn't seem to be about the kids."
Carol Resmini of Townsend has four kids in the district and said that she would be supporting the override because it means supporting the kids.
"I am out here for the kids. We have to do it for them," she said. "We're all struggling, but everyone needs to sacrifice for the kids' future and the future of the world."
Craig Irish of Ashby said he would like to see other options utilized before being asked to have taxes increased.
"I voted no because there are at least two empty schools, one here, one in Townsend and one even in Pepperell. There's no need to look for all that money when they have empty places," he said.