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Walpole officials start push for $2.5m school override

By Johanna Seltz
Globe Correspondent / December 15, 2011
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School officials are starting early to build support for a $2.5 million Proposition 2 1/2 override that they say is needed to stem the growth of class sizes and reverse the deteriorating quality of Walpole’s public schools.

If approved, the spending would raise property taxes about $275 per year for the average home, officials said.

Walpole voters last approved an override 10 years ago - on Sept. 11, 2001 - and overwhelmingly rejected one for $3.9 million in 2007. The School Committee plans to bring the latest override proposal to voters next May, and has held a half-dozen meetings with parents to outline the rationale for passage and encourage grass-roots support.

Some opposition already has surfaced from residents who question the need for more money in the schools. “I believe [this] override has more to do with pay raises than it has to do with class sizes,’’ said North Street resident John L. Sullivan.

But school officials said more than contractual pay raises are at issue.

“When the ’07 override failed, we had to implement cuts, and that trend really hasn’t stopped,’’ said School Committee chairman Brian Walsh. “We’re really at the bone now, and there’s not much left to cut out. . . . People say things are fine; we’re not going to be fine next year. I don’t think anyone will be satisfied with the way the schools will look next year’’ if an override fails.

According to Superintendent Lincoln Lynch, the quality of a Walpole public education already is at risk, primarily because of increased class sizes.

About a quarter of the classes at the two middle schools have more than 25 students, several fifth-grade classes have more than 30 students, and 120 classes at the high school have 25 students or more, including an Advanced Placement English class with 35 students, he said.

“We’re at the point now where we’re at a crossroads,’’ Lynch said. “Our MCAS scores are starting to flatline, where in the past we’ve seen steady growth, and we still have farther to climb. And our SAT scores dipped for the first time in many years.

“We’d like to continue to maintain a high-performing district, and we’re asking the community to support that. It’s a community override, and the community needs to tell us through a vote what direction they want the district to move in,’’ he added.

Lynch took over as superintendent after the 2007 override failed, and said he rebuilt the budget to create “efficiencies of over $1 million’’ by doing such things as reducing custodial overtime and reorganizing clinical services for speech and language therapy.

The following year, the schools saved another $1 million by cutting 38 staff positions, about 30 of them teachers, he said. And last year, the unions agreed to concessions in health insurance that saved the district more than $1 million, Lynch said.

The current school budget is about $37.9 million. The district has about 4,200 students and 600 employees, about 380 of whom are teachers, Lynch said.

He said a $2.5 million override would cover $1.3 million needed for contractual pay increases to school staff and the loss of $500,000 in federal money that has been paying teacher salaries.

An override also would provide $1.2 million to restore programs and positions that have been eliminated in the last few years, Lynch said.

An override is needed to exceed the restrictions in Proposition 2 1/2, a state law that limits the increase in a community’s property tax revenue to 2.5 percent a year, plus revenue from a growing tax base. Exceeding the limits will require Town Meeting approval to put the override up for a townwide vote.

Without an override, Walpole schools would have to make substantial cuts, including about 25 positions, Lynch said.

“That would drive class sizes to 30 or above in many cases,’’ he said. “We’re reviewing the cut list, and we will be looking at not only class size, but elimination of programs. It could impact athletics, school bus service, music, art, and physical education. Everything is on the table.’’

He added, though: “I’ll live with whatever the community decides. Our students will still come in the door Sept. 4, and bring them on. Our teachers will still be professional and caring.’’

Walsh, the School Committee chairman, has four children in Walpole schools as well as a 1-year-old. He said he hoped the administration’s early outreach about the budget choices would motivate parents to work for an override.

“It’s always difficult to ask people to voluntarily increase their taxes, [especially] in a recession,’’ he said. “But Walpole cares deeply about its students and the town. We’re trying to get the information out’’ on why an override is needed.

Vice chairwoman Nancy Gallivan, who has been on the School Committee for 13 years and has two children at the high school, said she thinks this override may have a better chance of passing than the last one because “it’s not a problem specific to Walpole. People understand that state and federal funding has been cut back, and that makes towns have to be more self-reliant or drop down in their ability to serve kids.’’

Lynch said the loss of federal and state funding has been exacerbated in Walpole by an enrollment growth of about 50 students a year.

“I think that another thing we have learned from failure is that we need to have a longer period of time where you lay out your case and ask people to consider a difficult decision,’’ he said.

“We’ve worked hard to determine if the base of support for this is strong. There weren’t enough people who felt as strongly as the committee did a few years ago.’’

Lynch said he and School Committee members met with about 250 parents since the fall and about 140 have offered to work on an override campaign.

Parents will hold an organizational meeting today, he said.

“We’ve done the outreach, provided the facts, and now the parents need to step up,’’ Lynch said.

Johanna Seltz can be reached at

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