Buoyed by a parent-led campaign, the largest voter turnout in eight years Tuesday approved a $1,491,000 Proposition 2 1/2 override for the Ipswich schools' operating budget.
"If you're going to ask for an override, it's good if there's a high voter turnout," said former selectman Jim Engel. "That way, whether it's positive or negative, it is the community that has spoken, not just a special interest group."
A total of 5,140 residents - 52 percent of the electorate - turned out to vote at the annual town election. The override passed by 563 votes, 2,831-2,268, with 41 leaving the ballot question blank.
This is only the second time since Proposition 2 1/2 became state law more than a quarter-century ago that Ipswich has supported an operating override. Rita Negri, the town finance director, said voters supported three operating overrides in 1990, including one for the schools.
"I'm proud of our community, happy for the kids," said school superintendent Rick Korb, "and appreciative of the Turn the Tide group that put this whole thing together."
The push from parents concerned about cuts in personnel and programs is part of what led the School Committee to seek the override, Korb said. The well-organized parents' group "Turn the Tide: Vote Yes!" helped ensure it would pass.
"They were focused, had a consistent message, were factually driven, and respectful of the opposition," said Korb. "This was a tough sell. The housing market has tanked, gas is $4 a gallon, and some people are losing jobs. To have the community say, 'That may be the case, but we're not going to let our schools go into decline,' is very rewarding."
Not everyone shared that view.
"Their scare tactics worked," said Dick Dunn, chairman of the Committee Opposed to School Override. "The overspending will continue and they will be back for more as soon as they dare."
Three operational overrides for Ipswich schools have failed during Korb's 10-year tenure, although a Proposition 2 1/2 debt exclusion to build the high school-middle school was approved in the 1990s.
With passage of the override, an estimated $285 will be added to the annual tax bill for the owner of a single-family home with a median value of $515,732.
"They made their case and deserve the support," said Engel, who supported the override. "The longtime vitality of the community depends on a good school system, and this was critical to the school system."
Susan Brengle, Turn the Tide cochairwoman, said her group focused on putting facts in front of voters. "The school budget was opened up to a level of scrutiny and questioning that was unsurpassed," she added.
In recent years, Engel said, the schools have benefited from the town's tax growth, including revenue from New England Biolabs and Turner Hill developments, and the EBSCO Publishing property downtown.
Also, in recent years the schools have not received the annual donation from the Feoffees of the Grammar School because of an ongoing legal dispute between the landlords and homeowners on Little Neck. The cottages, which the residents own, sit on land that is owned by a Colonial-era trust set up to benefit Ipswich schools. The contribution, which the school did not receive in fiscal year 2008, had been in excess of $500,000 annually, Korb said.
Korb said the override will save the jobs of 11 teachers; five support personnel; transportation in grades 7 through 12; the fourth-grade music program; and libraries in the elementary schools. Had it failed, the schools would have also been closed to community groups that use the buildings on weekends.
While 85 to 90 percent will go to retaining what the schools currently have, some of the override funding will go toward restoring an elementary school librarian position; bringing the transportation program back to the 2004 level; and replacing outdated technology, according to Korb.
"This gives us a chance to stabilize the system and address structural deficits that have been building for four years," he said.
"This needs to be fixed at the state level. We need the same effort from Turn the Tide and citizens to put pressure on the Legislature to fix the [education funding] formula."
Brengle said her group's job isn't done.
"I hope there are opportunities for both sides to put our collective energy to work on other issues," she said. "Turn the Tide, in whatever shape it takes, intends to keep working in other areas, be it Chapter 70 funding [state aid for schools] or tax relief for seniors. We believe there's more work to be done, and what this override does is allow us to turn our efforts to other avenues."
In addition to the operating override, voters also supported a joint schools-town project to develop a wind turbine. The $4.2 million project would be developed using a $1.6 million federal no-interest loan to the schools, with the remainder from the town's electric light department.
The project, which did not require an override, passed 4,037 to 1,011.
Engel, a member of the Electric Light Department subcommittee and supporter of a turbine project for several years, said it could yield a benefit of approximately $3.4 million to the schools over 20 years, and another $2 million to the town.
"More than an economic benefit, it has to do with the increased commitment of the community to green power sources," he said.