School Committee: planning for a general tax override

A special meeting of the School Committee on Tuesday, July 8, started at 4:00 pm, held in the fifth-floor meeting room at Town Hall. Special guests were Town Administrator Mel Kleckner and Town Counsel Joslin Murphy. All committee members except chair Susan Ditkoff attended, with Barbara Scotto chairing the meeting.

The School Committee has begun preparations to support a general tax override, also called an “operating” tax override. On May 6, 2008, Brookline voters approved a general override of 4-1/2 percent–added to an increase of 2-1/2 percent allowed without voter approval, for a total tax increase of 7 percent. Voters also approved a general override in 1994. General overrides become permanent elements of a community’s taxes. Regardless of initial purposes, later a community can use added revenues for other purposes.

According to committee member Rebecca Stone, a report from the selectmen’s Override Study Committee is being assembled by a subcommittee of five, whom she did not name. That committee scheduled meetings for the next two evenings, although it later cancelled the second one. According to Ms. Stone, there proved to be “no appetite” for dropping or reducing the METCO program. She did not mention the program for students from families of town employees living elsewhere, who pay so-called “materials fees.”

Private speculation about potential tax increases had ranged as high as 14 percent. Ms. Stone hazarded a guess that the Override Study Committee might recommend a general override of around 5 percent–for a total 7-1/2 percent tax increase. However, depending on decisions about a school-building program, voters could also be presented with a debt override proposal.

A debt override allows debt-service spending above the normal limits for a specific project and a term of years. That could pay for school renovations and expansions. There were previous debt overrides to renovate Brookline High School and to build the new Lincoln School. In his budget message of February, 2014, Mr. Kleckner included $110 million for Devotion School, $51 million for the High School, $28 million for Driscoll School and $2 million for other school buildings.

In its 2014 budget report, the Advisory Committee stated that it anticipated a debt override to provide about $77 million toward Devotion School renovation and expansion. The town’s FY2015 financial plan projects debt service charges for the project rising to about $5.6 million per year over about 25 years. According to that plan, debt exclusion for Devotion School would add about 3 percent to current taxes, but the largest part of the added taxes would not be levied until July of 2018.

Mr. Kleckner reviewed the override process and the potential schedule. Regardless of its purpose, he said, an override has to be proposed by the Board of Selectmen. Questions can be put to voters at regular or special elections. In past years, Brookline has preferred the annual elections for town offices in the spring. Mr. Kleckner said he will propose that the Board of Selectmen vote January 13 of next year on ballot questions for an election to be held May 5.

Mr. Kleckner’s schedule would allow 16 weeks for what he called a “private campaign.” Mr. Kleckner, who started his work for the town in September, 2010, would not be familiar with any of the previous Brookline overrides. However, he seemed aware that members of the School Committee and Board of Selectmen would likely campaign for an override–as they did during the previous efforts.

Ms. Murphy, the town counsel, emphasized that elected officials must rely on private funding and privately organized efforts when campaigning for an override. About the only government element allowed in such a campaign would be statements of positions and answers to questions on the town’s Web sites. Using private resources, she said, elected officials are free to organize, advocate, raise funds, hold meetings, distribute information, appear on broadcast media, identify themselves and behave as they might in any other political campaign. Municipal employees, she said, are more restricted. Generally they have to be evenhanded.

William Lupini, the school superintendent, said opposition could be expected, recalling what he called “fact police” at forums organized during the 2008 override efforts. Dr. Lupini mentioned that work is underway on a revised Web site for Public Schools of Brookline, expected next September. Compared with the recently revised municipal Web site, the school Web site lacks critical information. For example, it provides no access to detailed financial plans for either the current fiscal year or any prior years.

Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, July 12, 2014

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