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Group nears $300,000 for schools

When the Winthrop High School Drama Society made it to last weekend's finals of the state High School Drama Festival, the head of the school's new Viking Pride booster group ticked off one more reason townspeople should open their wallets to support educational opportunities for their young people.

For the last year, Richard Fucillo has worked to convince Winthrop residents that they live in a unique community and that their young people are an important community investment.

Fucillo and the foundation he founded have raised close to $300,000 in the year since a failed Proposition 2½ override led to a student walkout over budget cuts at the high school, including sports and drama programs. The contributions have come from more than 600 individuals.

The money collected by the Viking Pride Foundation has been used to restore the debating and math teams, provide a fitness club for non-athletes, and pay a stipend to the band director.

The foundation has also brought together like-minded volunteers who landscaped the front of the high school. And Fucillo convinced former Winthrop High School Superintendent Peter Finn to come out of retirement to run the high school athletic department for the kingly sum of $12,000 a year.

''Most importantly, what we've done is helped people change avery negative attitude about our community," Fucillo said. ''We're hardly out of the woods but I think people are beginning to realize this is their Winthrop and they can do something to make it better. It begins with what we are doing for our kids."

Fucillo has received donations of all sizes, including $5 for purple rubber Viking Pride bracelets and contributions as high as $25,000. The foundation's fund-raising success was cited by the New England Association of Schools & Colleges in February, when it took the high school off accreditation warning status.

''We said a year ago we needed to raise $1 million for an endowment for the high school and we are well on the way there," said Fucillo, himself a Winthrop native and an assistant high school football coach. ''We've appealed to parents and alumni and nearly everyone we approach wants to help."

That the Viking Pride Foundation will eventually reach its goal is something few in Winthrop now doubt. But whether it is the answer to the town's long-term money woes is a question many are beginning to debate.

''I have to admit I was among those whose first thought was to call a real estate agent when the override failed last year," said Mike Eruzione, who as an Olympic gold medalist is among Winthrop's most famous sons and whose own son, Paul, is a Winthrop High School junior. ''But when Paul said he didn't want to leave, I readily signed on with Richard to do what I can. But while I am very excited by what Viking Pride has done, I worry that some people are going to say, 'Gee, they can raise the funds privately. Why do they need to raise our taxes.' "

Eruzione's concern is shared by Thomas Scott, the head of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

''You'll find across the board there is broad anxiety among superintendents that we are moving away from funding public education with public funds," Scott said. ''The advent of user fees, whether it is for athletics, extracurricular activities, or busing, puts extra demands on parents and you begin to lose the whole concept of 'public' in public education."

Donald Kearney, the chairman of Winthrop's Advisory Board, is among the few town leaders who is willing to say that the town desperately needs and can afford to raise taxes through an override of Proposition 2½.

Kearney contends Winthrop's budget problems stem from an over-reliance on state assistance that has dried up in recent years.

''For instance, we received $24 million from the MWRA, which was paid out over 12 years as mitigation money for the construction of the Deer Island sewerage treatment plant," Kearney said. ''That was great money when we got it in the mid-'90s but now that the payments are done, we are shy that $2 million each year."

Winthrop operates on a $34 million annual budget, with the schools taking $14.6 million of that, Kearney said.

''We know the schools want an additional $1.5 million for next year and that's not for extras," Kearney said. ''It would pay for already negotiated raises and fixed cost expenses."

Richard DiMento, who chairs the Board of Selectmen and has lived through the last two failed override attempts, said he cannot in good conscience support an effort to raise taxes above the limits of Proposition 2½.

''The community just doesn't want to hear about an override," DiMento said. ''The people want us to live within our means and if that means more cuts in the school budget, that's what we have to face."

DiMento said that Winthrop, unlike its more suburban cousins, cannot count on receiving additional ''new growth" revenues from the construction of new subdivisions or the location of additional business because there is little available land for development.

''We are a built-up community so our only additional revenues come from people putting money into improving their homes or a few condo conversions here and there," DiMento said. ''It helps but it doesn't amount to that much, especially when you consider that our health insurance premiums went up 22 percent or $600,000 in one year."

Fucillo said for the moment he isn't letting such talk get him down and that he is concentrating on meeting the Viking Pride's $1 million goal.

''I saw the way the kids reacted when they were told they weren't going to have athletics," Fucillo said. ''This foundation was born out of a sense of responsibility to take care of our children in the same way we were taken care of. I really do think we can take this foundation to greater heights."

Caroline Louise Cole can be reached at

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