It was an hour past the posted start time of 6:30 pm before Monday night’s Mattapoisett Spring Town Meeting got underway. Long lines at the registration desks, lines that circled around the rear of Old Rochester Regional High School kept moderator John Eklund from opening the meeting on time. But once everyone was seated either in the auditorium or in the overflow area in the gymnasium, nearly every seat was taken.
Four hundred and twenty-five registered voters came out in force, primarily to show their support for Article Two, the General Operating Budget, and line item 01-306-002 “Regular Day Elementary School Education” with a request for $7,535,043 for Old Hammondtown and Center Schools.
Long before the attendees began arriving, pro-school budget advocates lined the entrance ramp into the school parking lot holding signs urging voters to accept the budget as presented.
But even earlier, years in fact, Mattapoisett’s Finance Committee had begun questioning why the local schools’ budgets continued to grow in spite of decreasing enrollment numbers and the elimination of classrooms and teaching staff. Spearheading the effort for more data and better explanations from the Mattapoisett School Committee and Old Rochester Regional School District administration has been Fincom Chairman Pat Donoghue. As she rose to make an opening statement, the room hushed.
Donoghue expressed her appreciation for a large turnout before talking about what she termed “myth busting.”
The first myth Donoghue asserted goes back several years to when in researching classroom sizes, she said she had been told that the ideal number of students per teacher was 12. After further investigation, she said she learned that the state suggests a student/teacher ratio of 18 to 25 students per teacher. Donoghue said, in spite of trimming classrooms and educational staff, “We saved nothing.” She said that more support staff has been hired.
Another budgetary issue that Donoghue targeted as myth was per-pupil costs. She said research has proven that it costs more to educate a high school student than an elementary school student, yet Mattapoisett funding is the other way around.
A final issue Donaghue sought to clarify was ownership of the school buildings and whether or not the Council on Aging’s expenses related to building use were being foisted onto the schools’ balance sheets. Donoghue said the town owns the buildings, not the school administration or school committee, and carries the debt associated with each school and that debt currently attributable to the two schools will end in 2025.
By the time she concluded her comments, it was 8 pm.
Town Administrator Mike Lorenco gave a presentation on the way the tax dollars are spent, how revenues are received by the town and processes therein. In layman’s terms, Lorenco explained the levy limit, revenue resources, expenses, a breakdown of where tax dollars go, how school spending has outpaced inflation, recent town budget actions that have resulted in savings, how an earlier Master Plan impacted school spending, enrollment histories, per-pupil costs and the need for more fiscal research including the development of a multiyear school budget plan.
Once public comments were invited, there ensued one hour and 45 minutes of debate, including heated exchanges and voices to pass the budget and take on additional budget review over the coming year.
Mattapoisett School Committee chairman James Muse said he was hurt when he heard that some people were saying special deals had been made in secret. “I make deals with you,” he said pointing to the attendees.
School Committee member Carly Lavin added her voice, saying the school budget presented was levelly funded, that it would be prudent to pass the budget, that inflation was a contributing factor to rises in the budget and that “zero” staff had been added. She also stated that school choice, a hot button for the Finance Committee, did not add to staffing needs.
Lavin agreed that per-pupil costs need a closer look and that she was surprised when the Finance Committee voted not to support the FY23 school budget. She also warned that not approving the budget would result in cutting teaching positions.
ORR School District Assistant Superintendent of Finance and Operations Howie Barber rose to say that the budget process has been transparent, that any pay raises for himself and others were contractual arrangements, but that those raises have not yet been approved by the School Committee.
Rose Bowman, longtime educator and principal of the elementary schools, said, “I am the voice for 440 children.” She reminded the voters that the town has a long history of supporting its schools and that such support is the reason why the town and its students are so successful.
Several voters rose to question the per-pupil costs and the need to fund other departments. There were moments when Eklund struggled to maintain decorum as speakers used the public forum to vent grievances related to real-estate taxes and school costs mixing words with one another. Several times, the moderator attempted to bring closure to public comments, saying at one point, “We’re not going to solve these problems tonight … but the discussion has started, and this has been enlightening.”
The Finance Committee hoped that its majority no vote for the school budget would inspire a deep dive into school finances and future budget discussions. It was obvious that gambit had worked. Article 2 passed by a 425-20 margin.
And then the room cleared.
It was like a mass exodus. The moment the FY23 Operating Budget was passed, the majority of the citizenry noisily exited the public meeting, leaving less than half of those who were in attendance alone to finish the democratic work of the townspeople, spending tax dollars.
In a follow-up, Select Board member Jodi Bauer said that although she was not surprised, it was “disheartening and disappointing” that so many had left.
Lorenco said in a follow-up missive, “I was glad that many residents were present. I hope they learned some things.” He said it was his job to hear all sides of an issue in his work on behalf of the Select Board and the townspeople. But of the people leaving once Article 2 was completed he added, “The mass exodus was disheartening in a lot of ways. The Town, School Department and many others work hard to present a budget and a warrant so we can hear from the community and do the necessary projects.”
Those townspeople that stayed went through the remaining 25 articles, voting yes to all with a couple of modifications.
Article 15, a Community Preservation Act grant request in the amount of $120,000 was withdrawn and Article 13, also a CPA grant request, was trimmed from $55,000 for new basketball courts and the addition of pickleball courts to just the repair of one basketball court and the addition of one court for $20,000. The General Operating Budget Article Two totaled $30,766,933.
Lorenco’s presentation is available at Mattapoisett.net.
Mattapoisett Town Meeting
By Marilou Newell