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Wenham Considers Separate School, Town Budget Votes at Town Meeting

Wenham Selectmen are considering having voters take separate votes on the fiscal 2013 town and school budgets at the Annual Town Meeting in May.

Wenham officials are considering asking Town Meeting voters to approve the school budget separately from the full fiscal 2013 budget this year.

The change would have the school budget go before voters in one vote, after a discussion, and the town budget in a seperate vote.

“It is an enormous part of our budget,” said Wenham Selectman Patrick Wilson when the Board met at  on Tuesday, referring to the school budget. “I think we ought to think about it.”

Town Counsel Paul Weaver said he would talk to Hamilton Town Counsel Donna Brewer about Hamilton also considering the move.

Wenham Finance Committee Chairman Catherine Harrison told the Selectmen she wanted to make sure that after a separate vote on the school and town budget that the total tax impact of spending is clear to voters.

Typically, Article 2 on the Annual Town Meeting warrant in both towns takes up the budget, which combines all town and school spending.

Last week, the School Committee approved a $29.2 million fiscal 2013 budget, up 3.8 percent over this year’s budget.

“The difference, for the most part, is contractual obligations,” said Interim School Superintendent Peter Gray.

While the budget is planned to increase, it would not ask any further funding from either town for the second straight year, Gray said.

“There would be no additional assessment to the towns but there would be no giveback,” Gray said.

But Gray told leaders from both town on Tuesday night that the budget would likely be voted again next week, since the approved budget plans to use money that will not be available until October 2012 - four months after the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.

Instead, the School Committee will rework its capital expenses and has to wait until state officials certify the “excess and deficiency account,” essentially a compilation of fund balances, in the next few days. It’s that money that will be used as revenue in the 2013 budget.

The School Committee has not officially passed along the approved budget to the Boards of Selectmen and likely will not do that until after its vote next Thursday, April 5.

Molly Martins, chairman of the Wenham Board of Selectmen, told Gray and School Committee Chairman Alexa McCloughan that town leaders are hoping for more information about the school budget before taking a position. They compiled a list of several requests for information, including a complete special education budget, a breakdown of information technology expenses and a cost-per-student comparison of similar highly performing school districts of about the same size.

“We see the confusion here from people who are involved in this every day,” Martins said.

A back and forth between McCloughan and Hamilton Selectman Jeff Hubbard debating use of accumulated money from in a kindergarten revolving fund in the 2013 budget illustrates why several budget issues are “so confusing" unless town and school leaders developing a singular budget message, said Chairman of the Hamilton Board of Selectmen Jennifer Scuteri.

“This is a little peek over the fence at the Town Meeting floor if we do not come forward with an united message,” Scuteri said.

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