PEPPERELL -- At the special Town Meeting Monday night, Pepperell voters approved a motion to appropriate a supplemental amount of $375,158 to the North Middlesex Regional School District, contingent on an override of Proposition 2 1/2, which residents will vote on at a special election scheduled for Aug. 28.
The motion came after the School Committee voted this summer to approve a budget that is $1,994,291 less than their needs budget, downgrading to a level services budget, after a failed attempt at an override in June. The amount is in addition to the budget of $10,740,000 that was approved at the annual Town Meeting on May 7.
The vote was passed by an overwhelming 198-12 following a presentation from new Superintendent Joan Landers and retiring Superintendent Dr. Maureen Marshall, during which they disclosed details of teacher contract negotiations with permission from the teachers union. The presentation included details such as a zero percent step increase for fiscal 2012 and 3 percent step increases for fiscal 2013 and 2014.
"That 3 percent step is smaller than the old contract where there were 4 percent steps," Marshall said.
Although the contracts are not yet ratified, the bargaining process has begun out of necessity.
"People ask, 'Why are you bargaining for any contracts when you don't have a budget yet?' ... We're not doing anything until we have a budget but our attorney has spent a great deal of time telling us we must collectively
Despite the focus of the presentation, comments from townspeople largely revolved around concern for class sizes versus tax increases.
Melissa Tzanoudakis of the Finance Committee said that on average, townspeople could expect to see an additional $33 per year per $100,000 of a home's value.
Selectmen Chairman Joseph Sergi said the tax differentials would be a little more individualized, but they could not be specified at the moment.
"We're giving broad statements because that's all we have," he said.
Residents against the motion expressed concern over the tax increases, especially the permanence of the solution to a problem that might only be short term.
"(The override) is forever," said John Gubernat of Pepperell. "Is there a way to change asking what we're voting on here to do it on a more incremental basis?" he asked.
Sergi said there were no other options to be considered; in addition, he said supporting the school is a long-term project, especially with cuts in state and federal aid.
"The commonwealth wouldn't want you to pull (the funding) back," he said.
Townspeople in support of the motion agreed that the amount was a small price to pay for the benefit of the children.
"We need to keep the integrity of our schools. (When I was in school) we had a lot of kids with serious problems that went undetected, that went untreated because there weren't the resources to ...take care of problems that existed," said Diane Karr of Pepperell.
According to Town Administrator John Moak, Pepperell comprises approximately 49 percent of the student body within the district, and is thus responsible for assuming that percentage of the budget. He said he was not surprised that the motion was carried.
"It was pretty predictable considering the audience," he said. "It was good because it allowed people to vent and get some information, but I think the outcome was already pretty much determined."
However, he said that the results are not necessarily indicative of what to expect from the special Aug. 28 election.
At the Special Town Meeting for the previous override attempt in June, nearly all attendees expressed unequivocal support for the motion, he said, "but at the election, the results were overwhelmingly 'no.'"
Moak attributes this to the fact that significantly more people turn out for elections than for Special Town Meetings.
"It's going to be unpredictable," he said.
Town Clerk Jeff Sauer said the override will be carried by a 2-1 vote between the three towns in the North Middlesex Regional School District; this means that even if residents of Pepperell voted against the override, it would still carry if both Ashby and Townsend voted in favor of it. The same would go for the other towns as well.
"The other town would have to step up and pay it anyway," said Sauer.