SHREWSBURY, Massachusetts – With all the talk over the last months about the issues with the School and Municipal Budget, and the recent announcement of a new grass roots effort here in Shrewsbury, there has been a pretty wide spread call to once again look to the residents of Shrewsbury to explore a potential tax override. This would not just be a stop gap measure to fix the proverbial hole in the dam, but rather something to take our school district, and our town as a whole to the next level. The vision of what a different place Shrewsbury might be if we were to do that, has been haunting me for a while.
Along those lines, I posed to myself the following thoughts and questions, not about the process or prospect, but rather about the structure it would take and the net result it would have on all of us.
How much money would is take?
The answer to this depends on what level you would want to take it to. There are many different checkpoints that one could stop at, and that decision would be up to our town leaders and management.
For about $6 million, we could probably shore up the deficit in our school department budget, bringing us back from having to eliminate 30+ positions, and back to a 2011 or 2012 budget that we all might agree is woefully inadequate in just about every sense of the word.
At the other extreme, one might ask just what our community would look like with a $15 million dollar override? Well, we would start with that $5.6 Million to bring the schools to level-service from the current fiscal year. Then let’s set aside another 3/4 million to do away with “pay as you throw” trash bags, and another 1/4 million to add a half dozen positions in our fire and police departments. For another $1.4 million we could beef up our capital expenditures, purchase some needed vehicles for our various departments, and even get the salt shed we need at the municipal garage. An added $1 million will help with staffing up some of our town departments, and contributing to our long term pension obligations. No longer will we find closed windows at town hall, no more groveling for donations to keep the library open on the weekends – it would just be open.
What about the extra $6 million? Well that would bring our schools up to the next level for the 21′st century. If it were up to me, $2.0 million would go right to technology, with the purchase of thousands of 1:1 computing devices, both iPads and MacBooks, which would outfit our students, and included in that would be advanced training for our teaching staff on the use of technology in the classroom. This is nothing novel, but rather has been done in districts across the nation. That leaves us with $4 million left to spend. $1.5 million of it could be used to get rid of bus fees, activity fees, athletic fees, and admission to all of Shrewsbury’s sporting events would be free. Clubs at Shrewsbury High School would not have to collect money from their members to pay for the bus to events, and even supplies could be requisitioned from a building specific fund.
The last $2.0 million would go to adding 35 staff members across the district, bringing down class sizes, and most importantly increasing the amount of offerings at the high school level. Just imagine, we would have 20 students in a class instead of 29! We could have not only an advanced math program at Sherwood and Oak, but an advanced science, english, and social studies program as well. At the high school, students could take as many electives as they wanted, multiple sciences, multiple languages, and “studies” would be a thing of the past. We would still have $1/2 Million left, and that could go to building our relationship for dual enrollment with universities in our area, which would allow our schools to free up some staff, and our students to take an unlimited amount of course offerings at the college level, while still in high school, as they do in many other districts. The potential for this is amazing, and will not only turn our students into the kind of applicants that colleges strive to attract, but moreover save parents potentially thousands of dollars in college tuition down the road, by having their students graduate high school with a year of college credits under their belt.
Of course, neither of those two extremes are the only possibilities. Any combination of them would be possible. The key is that by having a broad brush, and not focusing only on one issue. there would be something in it for everyone to get behind in rallying for the cause.
How much would it cost?
This is one that I actually research a while ago, so I have the figures. According to Town Manager Dan Morgado, based on the 2012 tax assessments, every $5 million in the override would cost $390.42 to the average homeowner, with an average valuation of $372,559. This means that our “dream override” package would cost the average homeowner about $1170. Since property taxes are tax deductible, unlike fees, this $1170 would probably only have a real “net cost” of $800 or so, depending on their tax bracket.
To some, that may seem like an awful lot of money, and it is – but when you really look at it closely, it’s a huge winner, pretty much for everyone in town. After all, many of us with kids in school are already spending $1200 just on athletic and activity fees, or $600 on school buses, or both. Add in that I’ll get my trash for free and my only question is where do I sign up?
For those without kids in school, I’m sure they’ll be asking themselves why in the world they would support such a thing, but when you look at the benefits to the community it really and truly would be a winner. Just think what property values would do in a community that rallied in such a way. As a Realtor in Shrewsbury for over 25 years, I can state without reservation that a town without fees, with world class schools, fantastic town services and parks, etc. would make Shrewsbury one of the most sought after communities in Worcester County. A difference in your property value of just 1%….really only 1 little teeny percent….would mean an extra $3500 more in value to the average homeowner. Would it happen? I actually think 1% is low. My guess is that it could be closer to 3 or 4% or more in the long term.
The planning to support our schools and town starts now
Many people feel that the time to begin debating the issue of a tax override begins when the issue gets put on the ballot for a vote. Having been involved in more than a few of these processes, I can state emphatically that by then it’s far too late to get on board. In reality, the time to think about this is now, well before the election season ramps up, and even before we know who may or may not be running for election or re-election to town offices.
For the people here in Shrewsbury who are against an override, the key is to elect candidates to the Board of Selectmen, School Committee, and Town Meeting who are emphatically against even placing an override on the ballot for the community to vote on. On the other hand, to those who are in favor of a potential override, what you want to do is to do your research just as soon as possible, and elect to those positions candidates who will speak out publicly during the campaign that they will adamantly advocate for an override as priority one. This will undoubtedly take a bit more work than you might think. I know I have gone out holding signs for candidates before, most of whom I consider good friends, thinking that we shared a view on getting that funding in place for our schools, and yet after they were elected, each of them voted time and time again, against letting the town vote on an override. They were all amazing public servants, and generously gave up their time for the job, but it turns out we didn’t agree as much as I thought on the issue of funding for our schools. In short, you can’t assume anything, but rather need to specific ask candidates, on the record, whether or not they will support an override when the question comes up again.
Taxation does not always solve the problem
Voting to increase taxes, and spend unwisely would just dig us a far bigger hole than we are in now. I grew up in an area of New Jersey where we were overtaxed, and the community overspent, to the point where many couldn’t even afford to live in our town anymore. Here in Shrewsbury, however, we have been woefully under taxing ourselves for far too long, and the time has really come to decide if we are willing to make the investment. It may be a battle, but if we do it right, and have something in it for everyone, it’s something that can be done. Every battle requires a host of different people, and right now what this one needs is someone to carry the flag that the rest of us can rally behind. Who will that person be? Only the next few weeks will tell. It would need to be someone not just with courage, but with charm, and that special ability to really build a true consensus with the countless diverse interests that make Shrewsbury the special place that it is today.