Hamilton's Finance Committee agreed informally Saturday to join its counterparts in Wenham in asking Town Meeting to vote for a regional school budget that returns $500,000 to the taxpayers.
Without taking a formal vote, the Hamilton committees agreed that there was time over the next year to worry about the potential $2 million “cliff” in school funding anticipated for next year.
The two finance committees, whose recommendations often carry considerable influence on budget issues at the May's Town Meetings, were $150,000 a part when both committees came to a joint meeting Saturday morning at . Hamilton's finance committee had voted to recommend to the Town Meeting that the school district "give back" $350,000 to the towns. The Wenham finance committee had voted for the schools to give back $500,000.
The school committee would like to , or “E and D”, account, which is like a savings account.
“We will need that money for next year,” said Hamilton-Wenham Regional School Committee Chairman Alexa McCloughan, who attended the meeting. She spent much of the hour-long meeting debating the issue with the two finance committee chairmen, Roger Kuebel for Wenham and John McWane for Hamilton.
The two committees agreed to meet again with the school committee and the school superintendent later this month - after April vacation - to try to work out an agreement on the “give back” issue.
“We would like to go into Town Meetings unanimous,” McWane said.
The Hamilton finance committee indicated it was moving to support Wenham's $500,000 “give back” proposal after it was disclosed that state Rep. Brad Hill, R-Ipswich, had told town officials that the state is planning to give an additional $120,000 to the schools for this year. The funding, which Hill was quoted as saying is “guaranteed,” comes from higher than expected state revenues, Kuebel said.
The dispute is not about funding the schools for 2012, which at $27 million would be fully funded and represents a $1 million increase over this year's spending. It is about where the “savings account” for 2012 should be held – by the schools or the taxpayers.
“I am more comfortable with us holding it than the schools,” McWane said.
McCloughan disagreed. She said she does not believe that some finance committee members “understand the issues” the schools are facing next year. She said the schools will start next year with $800,000 more in expenses and the potential shortfall could be $2 million.
She conceded that in the past the towns have supported the schools. But she said she is less comfortable now that the membership of the finance committees has changed.
McWane told McCloughan that it was “false security” to believe that the additional funding this year would help the school budget next year.
The meeting was attended by several members of two opposing action committees – the Enough is Enough organization, which favors keeping property taxes lower, and the Save Our Schools group, which supports higher funding levels for the schools.
The meeting was also attended by Hamilton Town Manager Michael Lombardo and Wenham Town Administrator Jeff Chelgren. Lombardo warned the finance committees that the towns have to keep looking for ways to reduce spending.
“The costs are outstripping the revenues,” he said.