Westborough School Committee Chairman Ilyse Levine-Kanji's "You get a great bang for your buck"-themed budget presentation Saturday apparently resonated with voters.
The annual town meeting approved school officials' budget request of $42,694,208, a 3.1 percent increase from current spending.
Voters had three school budget options: the school department's request; the advisory finance committee's recommendation of $42,521,400; a 3 percent increase; and resident Dominic Capriole's proposal of $42,108,000.
Town Moderator Joe Harrington said voters would discuss all three numbers simultaneously, but vote on the largest number first, and end the voting if a majority supported it, per Westborough's bylaws.
"The purpose of public education is an investment in the youth generation of this town, this state and this country,” Westborough High School senior Mark Aronson said.
“You guys are trusting us that we will make your lives better when we're out in the world. I think in Westborough, the general consensus of the student body is that the town is doing a great job with that.
"The schools need to be able to change and innovate along with businesses and companies. the only way they can do that is if they have the financial flexibility to be able try out new programs, invest in new technologies.”
Levine-Kanji’s presentation ranged from the schools’ achievements, to "show you what an excellent return we all are getting as taxpayers"; to the cost of meeting state and federal mandates; to special education costs; to transportation costs; and to the school department’s cuts in recent years.
She said School Superintendent Marianne O’Connor, in preparing her budget recommendation, "met with principals, and only considered the most basic requests," from which she cut more than $250,000. The school committee then cut O'Connor's budget by more than $500,000, Levine-Kanji said.
"But, most of you here are seeing our number for the first time this evening,” she said.
The $172,808 difference between the school and advisory finance committee budget recommendations represented 5.3 cents on Westborough’s tax rate, or “less than $2 per month for the average family tax bill,” Levine-Kanji said.
Advisory Finance Committee Chairman Edward Behn said the two boards worked collaboratively during the budget preparation.
"I don’t want this to become a confrontation,” he said.
“In the end, we're all one town, and we're all trying to do the best we can with the resources that we have."
Behn said that "the finance committee is not recommending a cut in the budget, but to limit the increase to 3 percent,” which the majority deemed "a reasonable number from the base.”
"Taxpayers in Westborough have always supported an outstanding school system, and the school system has delivered. They do a wonderful, wonderful job,” Behn said.
Capriole, meanwhile, said his recommended figure was one suggested by finance board member Peter Allen during budget discussions this winter.
Allen disputed that.
“Early in the discussions with the finance committee, I basically indicated that number was something below which I could never agree, but I was interested in hearing the opinions of the other finance committee members," said Allen, who said he supported the finance committee number.
Capriole asked to "have these two proposals discussed before I say anything. I'd like to get a sense of the audience here.”
"You've given us a number, and I think you ought to tell us why,” Town Moderator Joe Harrington replied.
Capriole said the municipal budget met the selectmen’s goal of staying within a 2 percent increase in total taxes, not counting new growth in the base.
The schools’ requested budget increase exceeds that target, Capriole said.
"I think we have to coalesce around one goal rather than split the town around two separate goals,” he said.
One resident asked the fincom what it would cut from the school budget.
"I don't think the town wants to say goodbye to the hockey team or the football team or some of the fine arts programs,” the man said.
Finance Committee Vice Chairman John Arnold said "it really would be the finance committee micromanaging for us to say specifically what would we do.”
Resident Paula Less said she supported implementing a $200 per student, with a $500 per year max transportation fee, as discussed by the school committee this fall.
"The people that are driving their kids to school today drive them because they want to,” Less said.
“If you want to keep the school at the level that it is and can continue at, you have to put the burden on the people who utilize the system. We are one of the only towns around that does not have a bus fee."
Resident Nate Walsh said other school districts have programs Westborough lacks but could use; in one district, "every kid is given a laptop.”
"The school department is doing a good job with what we give them, but we have to give them what they need,” Walsh said.