Town Manager Dennis Piendak: "We just don’t have the revenues."Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our MyCapture site.
Town Manager Dennis Piendak: "We just don't have the revenues."

Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our MyCapture site.

DRACUT -- An already dire financial situation for the Dracut Public Schools is about to worsen, forcing the layoffs of a number of elementary school teachers in July, unless Town Meeting approves a Proposition 2 1/2 override in June, School Committee members warned Monday.

Chairman Michael McNamara told members of the Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee that cuts in state and federal aid, coupled with increased funding obligations in health insurance and retirement benefits, and a lack of free cash in the town's treasury has left the board no alternative to seeking a Proposition 2 1/2 override to fund Superintendent Steven Stone's requested 2014 operating budget of $29,677,282 -- a 4.

Dracut School Committee Chairman Michael McNamara: "The box of Band-Aids is empty." Still image from DATV video.Sun staff photos can be ordered
Dracut School Committee Chairman Michael McNamara: "The box of Band-Aids is empty." Still image from DATV video.

Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our MyCapture site.
9 percent increase over last year -- to maintain current minimum school staffing and service levels.

Addressing the School Committee's intention to seek an override, Finance Committee Chairman Kevin Willett offered his personal support for the effort, but added a stark prediction that the proposal will be rejected by an overwhelming majority of voters.

"We recognize the need," said Willett, speaking also for his fellow Finance Committee members. "Unfortunately, with the limited revenue there's no money to give you guys, and it's not feasible to do the override. (The voters' support) is not there."

Selectman Robert Cox made a similar statement to the School Committee, calling the override proposal "a really tough sell.



Expressing much optimism about an override's chances of passing, however, were School Committee members Joe Wilkie and Dan O'Connell, who in 2011 overcame similar negative predictions in leading the Friends of Dracut High School's successful effort to convince Dracut voters to overwhelmingly approve a tax hike to pay for a $60 million high-school renovation by a vote of 3,894 to 1,748 -- with twice as many people voting for the project as voted against.

"If people are willing to pay for it, we'll find out. I'm an optimist," said Wilkie. "The goal isn't to go after any police or fire department, or library money -- or 'close the elderly complex,' which is a false rumor that's been heard in town... What you're going to see the School Committee do is galvanize voter support for this and say what our educational needs are, without going about it the wrong way. Our intent is to go about it 100 percent the right way."

"People said the (new) high school project wasn't going to pass either," said O'Connell. "Everyone will benefit from a better educational system. It will pull the town forward as a whole."

The precise dollar figure the School Committee may seek from Town Meeting in its override proposal will be finalized and made public by April 22, Wilkie said.

"If we said we want to spend the same money (on the school budget) as Chelmsford the number we'd seek would be a $13 million override, and that is not even close to a realistic number," said Wilkie. "We need to do a needs-driven analysis specific to Dracut in the next few weeks."

Whatever "reasonable" override request figure the School Committee arrives at, in 2013 no one should underestimate the town's residents ability to understand and possibly support the override in the time of the school district's greatest need, Wilkie cautioned naysayers.

"The mentality that Dracut is an 'old Yankee community, just a farm town,' is outdated," said Wilkie. "Times have completely changed in 20 years. And I think we'll find out if people in the community have appetite for change."

Willett was unconvinced.

"Many people who have moved into this town came here because of the extremely affordable tax rate," said Willett. "There are many people in town who are going to take a selfish approach, to say 'I don't want to pay for it because I don't have kids.' Those are the people you need to get to."

While McNamara said he could not predict that townspeople would support the override, he said the board had no alternatives to making the request.

"The box of Band-Aids is empty. We've been Band-Aiding for years," said McNamara. "Everyone's happy with the property taxes on their homes because it's low compared to everyone else. But you get what you pay for. If you want to have quality schools, a quality police, fire department, paved town roads, you have to pay for that. We can't keep putting a Band-Aid on it. We have to go to the residents and ask for more money. I'm sorry. We have to put an override on it."

Placing the override before Town Meeting will require the Board of Selectmen's approval, which selectmen indicated to McNamara last week that the board will give.

In answer to a question from the joint board members, Town Manager Dennis Piendak said the average taxpaying family in Dracut pays $3,600 per year.

"But the full effect of all the debt exclusions hasn't hit the tax bills yet. That's an average increase of $257 per home," Piendak said.

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