A Special Town Meeting in Hamilton has been averted after the School Committee on Thursday night endorsed a so-called “giveback” of $500,000 to the taxpayers of both towns from the 2012 school budget.
The move was in the spirit of moving ahead to face the “most pressing needs in the district,” said committee member Dacia Rubel, referring to the process of finding a new middle school and high school principal plus a superintendent and director of student services.
Rubel later said that she hoped that the committee’s vote, which was unanimous, “sets a new tone for the debate in our towns that is more constructive.”
One of the School Committee members to support the $500,000 giveback when the committee voted earlier this month, Bill Dery, said that committee members that now support the larger giveback number “will not be disappointed.”
“I would like to commend the members of the committee that have changed their mind,” Dery said.
At issue was not the school budget, but the amount of money that goes in to the schools’ excess and deficiency, or “E and D” account, which is essentially a savings account to cover for unexpected expenses.
The School Committee had said a higher amount was needed to cover unexpected expenses and was needed to prepare for what is expected to be a $2 million gap in the 2013 budget. In addition, the School Committee said that it needed to have at least 3 percent of its budget in the E and D account, as recommended by state school officials and its auditor.
With a $500,000 giveback, that leaves 2.3 percent of the budget in the E and D account, Acting Superintendent Peter Gray said.
The , pointing to the expectation that this year’s budget will end with close to $1 million in unspent money, plus errors in the past year’s budget led to more taxes being collected than was needed.
Earlier this month, the School Committee voted to support a $300,000 “compromise” giveback, and .
Before Thursday night’s vote, Gray said the support of a $500,000 giveback “in no way negates the support the town of Wenham gave us at Town Meeting.”
With the committee certifying a budget with a $500,000 giveback – equal to the budget Hamilton Town Meeting voters supported on May 14 – another Town Meeting will not be needed in Hamilton. A had been scheduled for Monday night. Jennifer Scuteri, chairman of the Hamilton Board of Selectmen, said after the meeting that the Special Town Meeting will not be needed.
Former School Committee member Tess Leary - who served on the committee until mid-May - told the committee after the vote that it would be important to remember Thursday night’s vote during budget discussions next year.
“The $500,000 we do not have in the budget – we will need,” she said. “It is extremely important that when the schools need the support of the community that we get it.”
Don Gallant, the longest serving member of the School Committee, said that he has not seen many “very significant emergencies” in the past 20 years. The two he does recall were to cover special education expenses and he said there is money is a special education revolving account, separate from the E and D account, that could be used if that happened again.
“If we have a real huge emergency we will have to rely on the towns,” Gallant said.
That happened once before and, while the towns came through with midyear support, it came out of the following year’s budget, Gallant said.
“If something comes up that is real significant, we will need support from the towns,” he said.
Other committee members, including those that reversed course from their earlier position, did not make any comment before the vote.
After the vote, Jeff Hubbard, , said following the vote that the two towns “can turn the page.” Pointing to the estimated $2 million budget gap next year, he said that will be the next challenge.
“The only way we can do that is if we do it together,” Hubbard said.