DRACUT -- Jaws dropped. Tempers flared. Outrage reigned in Dracut Tuesday night.
Taking an action that stunned Dracut's School Committee chairman and other backers of a nearly $3 million Proposition 2 1/2 override for the schools, Selectmen Chairwoman Cathy Richardson and Selectman Joe DiRocco won the board's approval to set a July 16 meeting to discuss possibly reducing the Town Meeting-approved override amount from $2.9 million to $1 million.
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Citing a desire to protect the town's less-fortunate taxpayers and small-business owners, Richardson and DiRocco read aloud from a letter received from the state Department of Revenue stating a ruling that the Board of Selectmen has the power to nullify entirely or reduce whatever Proposition 2 1/2 override amount is approved by Town Meeting, rather than send it along to a special-election ballot unchanged. Neither stated who requested the ruling.
"We can do nothing and it doesn't get put on the ballot, or we can go with the contingent amount suggested by the town manager of $550,000 or we could wait and make a decision on what's the best way to go," DiRocco told his fellow board members after Richardson read the DOR ruling into the record.
"We were all at Town Meeting and the school side was strong, working hand-in-hand with the CPC folks," DiRocco continued. "But I've had a lot of calls from just the opposite side, (represented by) the woman at Town Meeting who talked about having to make a decision on whether she's getting medication or getting food."
Richardson joined DiRocco in successfully persuading their fellow selectmen to hold off until the board's July 16 meeting to set a specific date for a special election, when they will also further discuss and vote on what dollar amount, if any, should be attached to the override question on the ballot.
"One of the things that was not talked about at Town Meeting was that most of the small businesses in town are owned by people who live in town and they would be getting hit twice by this, in addition to increases they're already being asked to pay in their sewer and water rates, and renovations to Dracut High and Greater Lowell Tech," Richardson said.
Though Selectmen Tony Archinski and John Zimini expressed strong reservations about altering any actions taken by Town Meeting, they agreed, along with Selectman Bob Cox, to wait until July 16 to have a further discussion and to set the special-election date, respecting the wishes of Richardson and DiRocco.
"The legislative body has already spoken and I am not comfortable overruling what was done at Town Meeting," said Archinski, drawing the loudest applause of the night from about 20 audience members that included School Committee Chairman Michael McNamara.
"I'm very uncomfortable that the legislative body has given the people only one choice -- the $2.9 million -- but that is what I will honor," Archinski added.
While Zimini said he was "not leaning in favor of changing what Town Meeting did to put the question on the ballot," he also "did not mind waiting until July 16 to make a determination on what's going to happen.
"I do think we need to show some leadership on where we stand on the issue," he said.
McNamara, who was invited by selectmen later in the meeting to speak to the issue of placing the soon-to-be-closed Parker Avenue School on the market, used a moment at the lectern to notify the board he would be "very upset" if they altered the $2.9 million override that was approved by Town Meeting.
"This caught me completely off-guard tonight," said McNamara after the selectmen's meeting. "We had a Town Meeting on June 3 at which close to 1,000 voters attended and overwhelmingly approved a (warrant) article asking for a $2.9 million override be put on the ballot. Only for the selectmen to now try to reduce that to $1 million? I don't think so."
Newly elected School Committee member Betsy Murphy was more blunt in expressing her disapproval of DiRocco's and Richardson's proposed reduction of the override amount to $1 million. "I was shocked and very disappointed," she said. "This to me goes toward overturning the political will of the town at Town Meeting. And that's inappropriate."
Backers of the $2.9 million override of Proposition 2 1/2, which was based on a pressing-needs list offered by Superintendent of Schools Steven Stone and co-authored as a Town Meeting warrant article by School Committee members Joe Wilkie and Dan O'Connell, say it is desperately needed by the Dracut schools to offset several years of reductions in school personnel and supplies, and technological stagnation that's driven Dracut's educational rankings into the basement.
Cox, who became the apparent swing vote on reducing the override amount by remaining silent during the board's discussion, said after the meeting he was siding with Zimini and Archinski on the issue.
"I am 100 percent not in favor of changing anything that was decided at Town Meeting," Cox said.
Town resident Rich Cowan, who edits the Dracut Action for Education blog on Facebook, said in steering her fellow selectmen toward a discussion at their July 16 meeting of possibly reducing the Town Meeting-requested $2.9 million override to $1 million, Richardson broke a promise she made to voters.
"I made the mistake of trusting Cathy Richardson's campaign promise when she said that if the Proposition 2 1/2 override was approved by Town Meeting it would go on the ballot," Cowan said. "Now we know, it's on the record, that we cannot trust Cathy at her word."
As The Sun went to press late Tuesday night, several emails were sent to the newspaper from residents who expressed outrage.
"This was a travesty of democracy and needs to be exposed," resident John Keiley wrote.
Based on input from Town Clerk Kathy Graham, the board indicated that the most likely date for the special election will be Sept. 9 when most residents are back from summer vacations and back to school.
Graham said multiple residents had come to Town Hall in recent weeks seeking absentee ballots for the June 25 state special-election under the mistaken notion the June 25 ballot would contain the Dracut override question. That is not the case, Graham pointed out.
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