ROWLEY — Faced with potentially substantial increases in their Triton Regional School assessments for another year, selectmen from the district met this week to discuss budgetary concerns and brainstorm possible solutions to the current dismal state of economic affairs facing the towns and schools.
Earlier this month, the Triton Regional School Committee approved a tentative $35,999,989 budget for fiscal year 2013.
The budget is based on increased assessments for the three district towns: $7,927,099, a 6.21 percent increase, for Rowley; $9,104,586, a 3.71 percent increase for Newbury; and $9,403,600, a 5.21 percent increase for Salisbury.
Rowley officials have asked the school administration to reconsider and provide a level-funded budget for next year, while Newbury and Salisbury selectmen said they would be reviewing the school budget with town officials over the next week to determine what they could afford.
"Last year, the taxpayers of both Newbury and Rowley turned down their overrides, and I see no improvement in the general economy that would indicate a change in the taxpayers' attitude this year," Rowley Selectmen Chairman Bob Snow said. "So, the Rowley Board of Selectmen will continue to urge the School Committee to present a level-funded budget; otherwise, I foresee drastic cuts in town services far above last year's 2 percent cut across the board."
Superintendent Christopher Farmer said he understands that no one like to pay more taxes, but the reality is public services in one way or another impact the whole community and are dependent upon sufficient revenues.
"The average family property tax bills of the Triton communities are much lower than the great majority of surrounding communities," Farmer said. "I hope that everyone will consider that as they review the proposed budget."
The area selectmen came to a consensus that going forward, the best way to have better control regarding the school budget, and therefore their own town budgets, was to consider a new tri-town agreement by which each town allots half its budget, including the 21/2 percent state increase and growth in town revenue, to the schools.
"The schools should have to live with what we live with," Newbury Selectman Michael Bulgaris said. "When the money comes in to the town, the schools should get 50 percent of this and be capped at that amount."
All three towns already pay out more than 50 percent of their general funds to cover the school budget. According to 2011 figures, Rowley paid out the highest portion of its general funds for education at 59.5 percent, followed by Newbury at 52.5 percent and Salisbury at 51 percent.
"We have to make do with the funds we collect, and the School Committee should challenge the school administration to do the same," Rowley Selectman Dick Cummings said. "If the town of Rowley can run on the money it gets from the state, we should demand the school administration do the same and not have to try for override after override after override."
Newbury Selectman David Mountain said the difficulty with that philosophy is that the state knowingly underfunds the foundation budget to the schools, leaving the schools pleading with the towns to make up the difference.
"We need to work on efforts to get the state to pay out more," Mountain said.
Assistant Superintendent Brian Forget concurred, saying that since 2001, the amount funded by Chapter 70 (the state) has decreased by $10 million, leaving the towns to absorb much more of the school budget.
"We still need to find a balance between the schools and towns so that each can function properly," Snow said. "We, as elected officials, have to listen to the taxpayers in our towns, as they are our customers, and they expect the best product for the best price they can afford."
At the suggestion of Newbury Selectmen Chairman Joe Story, selectmen from the three towns agreed to reconvene soon to draft an agreement stipulating the towns would split their revenue 50/50 with the school district.
In the meantime, the group grappled with how the towns, particularly Rowley and Newbury, could withstand any more cuts.
Story spoke of the recent reductions within the Newbury Police Department that have left the town with three fewer officers and no full-time dispatchers on staff.
"There's not enough revenue coming in, and we've cut and cut and cut," Rowley Selectman Bob Merry said. "There's no more to cut."
A public hearing on the Triton school budget will be held Wednesday, Feb. 29, at 7 p.m. in the high school library. A copy of the 47-page budget document can be found on the district website, www.trsd.net.