By Katina Caraganis
TOWNSEND -- Taking a strong stand, the North Middlesex Regional School Committee voted unanimously Monday night not to increase athletic fees for the upcoming school year.
Superintendent of Schools Joan Landers had proposed increasing athletic fees from $125 to $210 at the high school and from $70 to $80 at the middle-school level, in addition to a proposed Proposition 2 1/2 override.
Committee members voted this summer to approve a budget that is $1,994,291 less than the district's needs budget, and contains $200,000 from the district's reserves.
This is the district's second attempt at an override for the current fiscal year. An override would permanently raise the tax base more than the 2.5 percent allowed by state law.
Ken Brown, the Ashby representative to the School Committee, said he sees athletic fees as another tax, and said it isn't fair to students who want to be involved in extracurricular activities.
"I think there are so many elements to athletics that are positive," Brown said. "That's not to say other things in the curriculum aren't important, but my point in bringing this up is, I am absolutely opposed to any sort of fee structure for athletes. We have one in place, and it's there, but I am not in favor of raising fees in terms of athletics. I call it a tax. We're already going to our towns asking for an override request that will increase the taxes, and then we'll go to our students
Rob Templeton, a committee member from Townsend, agreed with Brown, but said the money has to be cut somewhere in the budget.
"It has to be something real," he said. "We're going to make not raising fees a priority, and that priority has to come on the back of something else."
Townsend resident Todd Melanson said he has three children who play sports, and any increase to the athletic fees, coupled with the rising cost of school supplies, would make his family's financial situation unbearable.
"My problem with this is, you're attacking what is less than 1 percent of the budget when the problem is the other 99 percent of the budget," Melanson said. "You're talking about a pay-to-play proposition. That's not what public school is about.
"We're supposed to be teaching them about dedication, discipline," he added. "In our community, there's less and less for them to do. I have been one of your supporters. If this fee increase goes through, I will become one of your most vocal opponents."
Melanson said one of his sons wants to go into the Naval Academy, but has no shot of getting in if high-school athletics are out of his reach.
"If you limit sports opportunities, you limit their ability to get into a military academy," he said. "In order for them to get into military academies, sports must be offered to them. Advertise the low athletic fees you're offering."
Because a bottom-line budget has not been approved by all three member towns, Landers said the first day of school will now be Sept. 4, whether or not the override fails, to give teachers the chance to get into their classrooms and prepare.