AMESBURY — Mayor Ken Gray presented his own proposed budget for the next school year to the School Committee Monday. While Gray’s numbers were not adopted, Superintendent Michele Robinson’s higher budget was approved by a 6-1 margin. Gray was the lone dissenting vote.
“This is the blueprint and I think we would be shortchanging ourselves if we don’t go with the superintendent’s recommended budget,” vice chairwoman Debra LaValley said. “It is time that we start to move forward and we are looking at the levy capacity.”
The “levy capacity” is a phrase that has been brought up frequently in recent School Committee meetings. Under state law, there is a formula that determines the maximum amount of money a city or town can raise through property taxes. Amesbury is about $2.3 million under the levy ceiling, meaning that taxes could rise by that much without triggering the need for voters to pass a property tax override.
In recent years, the mayor and City Council have not raised taxes to the levy limit, due in large part to public pressure to control the tax burden on residents.
Robinson proposed a budget to the School Committee Thursday that called for keeping all current positions and adding 10 more positions. Monday night Gray proposed a spending plan of $29.063 million that also kept all current positions and added three to four more.
The mayor’s spending plan represents a $915,000 increase over this year’s school budget, a 2.9 percent increase. Robinson’s is about $1.3 million more than this year’s, a 4.6 percent increase.
“The amount of money that the city will be spending will be $915,000,” Gray said. “And I want to make a couple of points about that: My budget stops the cuts, there will be no cuts this year, whether it is my budget or the superintendent’s budget. Not only will there be no layoffs, but programs that had been cut can be put back and there will be no programs cut this year.
“I know that a couple of months ago, the big fear in town was that we were going to cut more. Well, we are not gong to cut more, we are at a point where we can begin to reinvest in our schools and we can put back programs.”
Gray further elaborated that $809,000 of his proposed increase would come from property taxes and the additional $106,000 would come from capital investment. The mayor also said that his proposed budget will allow the district to rebound from the current school year by adding back at least three teachers with the possibility of one more, as well as the possibility of additional funding coming from the state.
“My budget takes into account the needs of the entire community,” Gray said. “With it, the majority of the city’s tax levy increases will go to the schools, somewhere between 80-90 percent, as has been the practice for the last several years.
“My budget, though, also avoids cuts in the services in other vitally needed city departments. I am talking about police, fire, trash pickup, potholes, snow removal, all of the things that we might need to cut if we were to increase the school budget higher than what my recommendation is.
“In addition, we fund elderly services, youth services, veterans services, all the things that we need as a community. If we were to appropriate more than the amount of my budget, then we would probably need to make cuts in these other departments and I think that would be bad for our city as a whole.”
Gray closed his comments by warning of the potential non-sustainability of raising the budget amount or spending too much in one particular year, leaving uncertainty moving forward.
“The worst thing that we could do is fully fund this budget and then next year, because of financial problems that are unseen at this moment, we might have to lay those people off and cut the programs that we just added,” Gray said. “That would not be sustainable and I don’t think that is something that we would want to do.”
Committee member Christian Scorzoni said that while he shared Gray’s concerns about sustainability, he was hoping to see a roughly $1 million increase.
Committee member Peter Hoyt thanked Gray for his proposal that he said represented a “Herculean effort.” But Hoyt also spoke of his responsibility to his constituents as well as recent impassioned emails he received that have led him to continue to support Robinson’s numbers that would add 10 teachers.
“On Thursday we talked about this as being the time to begin the serious rebuilding of our schools after some eight to ten-plus years of breaking down what we have had in this district,” Hoyt said. “But in my mind, it simply is not enough.”
Committee member Stan Schwartz said he shared Hoyt’s thoughts and while he was satisfied with the School Committee’s recent work, he too could not support Gray’s proposal.
“I think we are at the point as a community to have the conversation over the next months about the elephant in the room, pro and con, levy capacity, etc.,” Schwartz said.
Citing mandates both state and federal that add costs to school operations, LaValley also said that she could not support Gray’s proposal.
“This is just a blueprint,” LaValley said. “We still have to wait for the City Council, we still have to have that dialogue. And some of the great points that people made in the emails today need to be shared. I may recommend that you send it out three days prior to a meeting so they have time to look at this and digest it before they vote. And we are still waiting for the state. We are still waiting to hear what is happening with the federal government and their grants. So it is an ongoing process.”
Schwartz then made a motion to approve Gray's budget proposal, which failed 6-1, while Robinson’s budget proposal was approved by the same margin with Gray the lone dissenting vote.
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