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Beverly schools brace for deeper cuts after tax hike rejected

Officials could lay off more employees than 31 initially planned

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Steven Rosenberg
Globe Staff / June 8, 2008

BEVERLY - After voters rejected a $2.5 million Proposition 2 1/2 override to fund schools on Tuesday, most Beverly residents thought the matter had been resolved: The district would close an elementary school, reassign up to 200 students to other schools, and send pink slips to 31 school employees.

The override was soundly defeated, 6,686 to 3,846. But even with the projected cuts, there is still about a $450,000 shortfall for the coming school year. That, said School Committee president Annmarie Cesa, means even more layoffs.

"There's going to be additional cuts," said Cesa, who supported the override.

In the coming weeks, the School Committee and Superintendent James Hayes Jr. will create a final budget, a process that will determine which teachers will be fired and which students will attend different schools next year.

"It's devastating on a variety of levels," said Hayes, who also had endorsed the override. "In the long run, we face a problem that is not erased by this; the problem is our expenses are rising faster than our revenues."

Tuesday's referendum, the first-ever Proposition 2 1/2 override initiative in the city, came after Hayes reported in March that the schools were facing a $2.66 million shortfall for the coming academic year.

At the time, he attributed much of the deficit to increased utility, special education, and insurance costs.

To close the gap, Hayes unveiled a plan that called for closing two elementary schools and cutting 61 school employees - including dozens of teachers.

The Superintendent Hayes's plan was met with outrage from some parents of school-agedchildren, who gathered more than 2,600 signatures from residents who demanded that the city hold a vote to override Proposition 2 1/2, a state law that limits property tax increases to 2.5 percent a year.

While the city acquiesced and set a special election, Mayor William Scanlon Jr. came up with a plan late last month that removed the Cove Elementary School from the chopping block. To keep the school open, Scanlon decided to give the district $680,000 in savings from city trash and recycling costs.

Still, some residents - on both sides of the override argument - accused city officials of not planning far enough ahead to prevent budget shortfalls.

"This is a message to the city officials to spend our money wisely and be careful with it," said Elliott Margolis, who founded the antioverride group Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility.

On Tuesday, at the Cove Community Center, more than 150 parents and children gathered to hear the election results. Inside the hall, mothers consoled children, and some parents wept openly upon learning that the McKeown Elementary School would close later this month. Ten years ago, the city spent $6.7 million to build the school, which sits in a neighborhood near the Cummings Center.

"It's one more loss without adequate planning; it's one more slash and burn without a sustainable plan going forward," said Joanna Murphy Scott, a parent of a McKeown first-grader.

But Scanlon, who also sits on the School Committee, defended the city's actions. "I've been talking about anticipated difficulties for three years, repeatedly," he said.

For the last few years, Beverly's schools have faced funding crises. In 2005, the city was forced to close a middle school, and in 2004 it laid off 41 teachers and administrators.

In prior years, an old school and a former fire station were sold to help balance the school budget.

Scanlon said the current plan for five elementary schools is sustainable, and pledged $680,000 in recyclable and trash cost savings to the schools for the next five years. He also said he anticipated additional state funding could ease Beverly's budget woes in the coming year.

Joan Sullivan, who founded the pro-override Yes for Beverly! group, said the organization - which recruited more than 300 people to hold pro-override signs for four hours on Cabot Street one Saturday morning in late May - would continue to play an active role in supporting the schools.

"We really feel that we've become a movement now," she said.

Steven Rosenberg can be reached at srosenberg@globe.com.

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