DRACUT -- Town Meeting on Monday night overwhelmingly passed an article calling for a $2.9 million override of Proposition 2 1/2, meant to better fund the Dracut public schools, to be placed on a special-election ballot this summer.
When School Committee member Joe Wilkie, Article 17's co-author, was asked what comes next, he had an answer ready.
"Get a good night's sleep," said Wilkie, with an ear-to-ear grin. "And then the real work begins."
The voice vote that passed the measure, also co-authored by fellow School Committee member Dan O'Connell, followed a series of brief speeches from registered voters mostly advocating in favor of the article.
O'Connell and Wilkie said the measure is intended to counteract several years of budget cuts that had left the School Department in dire straits.
Article 17 was one of two overrides that Town Meeting sent to a ballot on a date still to be determined. Also approved was a $200,000 override question to benefit the town's police, fire and public-works departments that was introduced by Town Manager Dennis Piendak as a "contingency appropriation" included in his $67 million fiscal 2014 town operating budget.
Passage of the dual Proposition 2/1/2 override proposals highlighted an action-packed, 40-article, four-hour Town Meeting that drew what may have been an all-time record attendance of close to 2,000 registered voters who filled nearly every available space in Lakeview Junior High School's combined cafeteria and gymnasium.
In other Town Meeting action of note, voters imposed a new meals tax that will add three-quarters of 1 percent to each restaurant bill charged within the town's borders. The meals tax, Article 33, was proposed by Piendak as a much-needed new-revenue generator that surrounding towns already impose, Piendak noted.
It passed by an overwhelming voice vote and will be added to the existing state meals tax of 6.25 percent, Piendak said.
Town Meeting voted to keep intact the annual 2 percent Community Preservation Tax, which generates about $750,000 in revenue for use in repairing or upgrading parks and recreational facilities, historic buildings and sites and obtaining open space.
Both Town Meeting votes taken on Article 34, authored by School Committee member Matthew Sheehan, to accept either a reduced CPC tax to a half percent, or eliminate it entirely, failed.
Town Meeting began on a somewhat chaotic and confusing note with Article 5 when Piendak introduced his $67 million town operating budget and informed Town Meeting it contained a contingency appropriation/Proposition 2 1/2 override of $750,000, including an additional $550,000 for the Dracut schools, and $200,000 split among the police, fire and public-works departments.
Several advocates for the $2.9 million Proposition 2 1/2 override went to the microphone to denounce the $550,000 school boost as too little, too late, and urged Town Meeting to vote no.
A Dracut firefighter followed the naysayers to the microphone to implore Town Meeting to not "unfairly and shamefully" take needed funds away from the public-safety agencies in the name of aiding the schools.
After Town Meeting voted no on Piendak's budget in its entirety, a perturbed town manager informed the gathering that they were in danger of seeing zero town services as of July 1 without an operating budget.
Wilkie, appearing to save the day by proposing a compromise amendment, urged Town Meeting to extract the $550,000 contingency appropriation for the schools from Piendak's budget, while leaving the $200,000 for police, fire and public works to go forward to a special election.
Wilkie's amendment was applauded and soon passed by an overwhelming voice vote.
Two of the strongest statements for and against the $2.9 million override were made by School Committee Chairman Michael McNamara and former Dracut Selectman Sheila Richardson.
"Ladies and gentlemen, your Dracut Public Schools are on life-support," said McNamara, drawing some of the loudest applause of the night. "As a lifelong educator, I can truly see just how critical this situation is to the town of Dracut, its students and the entire community. We had to go directly to the taxpayers and voters for help."
Richardson reminded Town Meeting of Dracut's unique plight as a town that draws 90 percent of its property tax revenue from residential homeowners.
"We all have a wish list -- everyone in this room does," said Richardson, who is also a former schoolteacher. "We've had to listen constantly to how much money Tewksbury, Andover, Chelmsford negotiate for their school budgets. Well, I don't care about those towns. I care about what's right for Dracut."