PLYMOUTH - Voters rejected the proposed $40.9 million 2017-18 town budget in Wednesday’s referendum by 382 to 157, with an approximately 6.5 percent voter turnout.
The proposal would have been an increase of 2.58 percent over the current year, meaning the tax rate would have gone up 3.51 mills to 39.53.
The ballot this year included an optional question: “If you answered no above, please mark your reasons below: Budget too high. Budget too low.”
Of those who answered the question, 321 said the budget was too high, 51 said it was too low. Not everyone who answered the question had in fact voted against the budget, but all those who said it was too low had indicated the school portion as the reason for their vote, according to referendum officials.
According to the Town Charter, if the voters reject the budget at the first referendum, the Town Council must schedule a second referendum within business 20 days.
If the budget is rejected a second time the council is authorized to make adjustments of up to three percent and adopt a budget by June 15. Once the budget is adopted, the finance board officially fixes the mill rate.
In 2015 and 2016 voters rejected the budget in two referendums before the council approved a final version.
The $40.9 million budget proposal was approved for referendum by the council in April, after contentious debate between the Board of Finance and the Board of Education.
The school board had requested a $542,289 increase over its current budget, a 2.27 percent increase, but the finance board was only willing to give $200,000 more to the schools, a 0.84 percent increase.
The finance board came up with several suggestions for where the schools could make up the shortfall. Ralph Zovich, finance board chairman, outlined a proposal to convert one of the two elementary schools to a pre-K through grade two school and the other to a grade three through five school, with a reduction in the number of classes from 37 to about 33 and increased class average sizes from 18 to 21.
This could save about $250,000, he said, acknowledging that the consolidation process could bring some extra costs.
Of the school district’s 40 special education students currently placed in programs outside the district, one or two could be brought back in district for “a potential savings of $100,000 or more,” Zovich said.
He suggested the district also postpone spending on upgrading technology for the schools, to save another $45,000.
Superintendent Martin Semmel called the assumptions behind the suggestions “a little scary and downright dangerous.”
Semmel said the school board has talked about school consolidation but it couldn’t be done in time for the coming school year. There would have to be discussions with parents and administrators and a study of issues like unemployment costs for laid-off teachers, transportation costs, etc., he said.
Melissa Johnson, school board chair, said she was “absolutely appalled” at the idea that the district could just recall a couple of special education students from their out-of-district programs. She called it “disheartening and disrespectful to the families that we service.”
Semmel further pointed out that the finance board gave the schools a 0.84 percent increase but saw fit to give the general government side of the budget a 5.83 percent increase.
Why should local young people who graduate college return to settle in a town that doesn’t prioritize education or technology in the schools? Semmel asked. “We need to give people a reason to come back.”
The finance board did agree to add $68,000 to the police department portion of the budget to restore a School Resource Officer to the department.
Susan Corica can be reached at 860-973-1802 or firstname.lastname@example.org.