EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 23, 2008

Budget Committee doesn't back school warrant articles

By Rebecca Correa , Staff writer

SALEM - School district officials are pushing for a high school renovation, but most Budget Committee members don't want taxpayers to buy into the proposal.

The Budget Committee voted, 6-3, not to support the $1.5 million warrant article that will appear on the school district ballot in March. That money would be used for architectural and engineering fees, the first major step in an estimated $41 million renovation at Salem High School.

Budget Committee Chairman Michael Carney Jr. voted to support the project.

"I have a lot of experience with the high school and we're putting off something that's got to be done. It's only going to cost us more down the road," Carney said. "I don't agree with the people that said it's the Taj Mahal. They're trying to bring the school up to state standards."

Committee members who voted against the article last week were Vice Chairman Susan Cove, Stephen Campbell, Kathleen Cote, Ann Marie David, Roland Theberge and Selectman Everett McBride.

Carney said those who voted against the proposal don't have children enrolled at the high school. He said the committee members who voted against it think it's too much of a burden for taxpayers, that the town needs to build a new police station first and that the cost of the renovation was inflated.

That majority not only decided the school district's request for $1.5 million was too much, they also rejected a proposal that would save money for the renovation in the future.

In a 5-4 vote, with McBride being the sole voter to switch sides, the majority of the committee decided not to recommend an article that would set aside $600,000 in a trust fund for future votes.

Superintendent Michael Delahanty said the article would have no tax impact on voters. Last year, the School Board OK'd adding a 5 percent fee to Windham's tuition charges after it became clear Windham wouldn't have its own high school ready until 2009-2010. The 5 percent charge would generate that $600,000.

"I just believe it would be incredibly unfortunate if that $600,000 doesn't go for its intended purpose, which was to offset any improvements to Salem High School," Delahanty said. "To have that money gone in a year, in a flash, and serve no useful purpose to the district is unconscionable."

Carney said Budget Committee members who didn't support this article thought the money should go back to taxpayers, and most didn't like the flexibility the school district would have to use the money at any time.

Both votes were taken Friday night, after a lengthier discussion and preliminary votes Thursday. Committee member James Randazzo was the only one to change his mind between the two nights. He ended up voting to support both articles, after he said he received several phone calls and became more informed about the project during the day on Friday.

Delahanty said the Budget Committee recommendations are important to a lot of voters, but he hasn't given up hope that the two articles will pass.

"There's a percentage of people who are going to go into a voting booth and vote no on everything. There's a percentage of people who go in and vote yes on everything," Delahanty said. "Others look at the recommendation of the Budget Committee and either agree or disagree with it. Their recommendation is indeed influential and we look for their support."

Carney agreed the committee's recommendations may be influential, but voters don't always side with them.

"I put faith in the individual voters," he said. "If any voter votes either way based only on the Budget Committee recommendation, that's a disservice to the town. They need to vote on their conscience."

Two more articles also will appear on the ballot without the Budget Committee's recommendation. The first asks for a 3.25 percent raise for janitorial staff, agreed upon in a contract that was signed last year. The second asks for the transfer of $30,000 to the capital reserve fund if the school district finishes the fiscal year with a surplus.