Superintendent to hold special session Thursday for questions

Town administrator makes case of helping schools will help Dudley operations

By Shaun Moriarty
Citizen Chronicle Writer
shaun@TheCitizenChronicle.com

DUDLEY — With a special election to raise taxes above the limits of Proposition 2 ½ slated for next week, officials are lobbying locals to come out and vote.

The special election will be held in both Charlton and Dudley on April 3. A total $3 million increase to the operating budget of the Dudley-Charlton Regional School District is on the line.

In Dudley, voters will decide whether to support an increase of $1,544,333, which town officials have said would raise the tax rate by $1.60 to $13.33 per $1,000 in valuation.

In Charlton, voters will act on a $1,543,655 increase that, if passed, would raise the tax rate by 99 cents to $14.49 per $1,000 in valuation.

At the selectmen’s meeting Monday night, School Superintendent Gregg Desto discussed the override vote during the public comments portion of the agenda. He said he will be available for any residents who may have questions or concerns from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Dudley Middle School. He noted this impromptu availability follows a “very disappointing” community outreach forum that drew just 10 citizens.

“I’ll have a presentation prepared, but if they’d just rather ask me questions, then I’ll be available to them for that. We’re going to try a few different methods of communication to see if we can stir up a little bit more support,” Mr. Desto said of Thursday evening’s forum.

“It is our intention to bring out any type of person, however their view is on this override election, whether they are completely against it, to be able to tell us that, tell us why, and have us respond to that, whether they’re on the fence and we get an opportunity to try to explain to them how this affects both the schools and the town, and certainly we want our supporters there as well so that that can spread.”

Town officials voiced their support for the override, and some noted it would benefit more than just the highly rated school system.

Town Administrator Greg Balukonis said, “Although the override is geared towards the schools, it does tremendously assist the town. The town is faced with a required minimum funding contribution, which utilizes about four-fifths of every available dollar that we have. Those are monies that we will not have to fund municipal services, police, fire, highway, and municipal operations in general. People need to be aware of the fact that they may be going out and voting for the schools, but there’s a very key piece that also helps the town tremendously.”

Mr. Desto said the additional funds would help cover holes in the district’s education.

“We have this gap in our district. Our district is very good, but if I can tell you honestly where we lag behind a little bit, it’s when you take (student representative) Jared (Tetreau) here, he’s going to graduate from high school, he’s one of the best students that we have, and he’s going to do really well, but the way he has been educated in high school is going to be almost completely different from the way he’ll be educated in college, and it’s completely different from the skills that he’ll need when he enters the job force with the exception of some of the working together and the social stuff that he’s done,” the superintendent asserted. “Everything now in the economy is internet, it’s the internet of things, it’s robotics, it’s all that stuff, so we have a gap between what our kids are learning and what they are going to need for skills when they get out into the workforce. That’s something that as superintendent I’ve been trying to address.”

To help cover those gaps, Mr. Desto said, he would like to add technology teacher integration positions that he described as “a 50-50 hybrid” geared to elementary students.

“It’s a person who teaches computer classes and who also is in the regular classes helping those teachers with what Massachusetts calls the digital standards into the curriculum,” he said, noting that a similar technology position was a casualty of budget cuts in 2012.

Mr. Desto said another key component in the proposed budget would be hiring adjustment counselors for the district’s elementary schools.

“We have a significant number of students struggling with mental and social challenges and the earlier we can catch that and intervene and build strong children, then the better they’re going to be right along,” he said. “It is a safety thing, too. When kids have these challenges that are untreated at an early age, you don’t have to be an expert in psychology to know what happens as they grow up. There is a long-term safety component to that, too.”

Selectman Jonathan Ruda said opponents of the override have told him they are concerned that the additional funds, if approved, would eventually find their way elsewhere in the town’s budget.

“Some of the pushback I’ve been hearing is that the law requires for an override that only for two years it goes towards the purpose there was an override in and after that it can be absorbed into the regular town budget,” Mr. Ruda said. “Short of Amazon setting up their headquarters here in Dudley, there’s really not a scenario where the money wouldn’t be applied to the school budget.”

Selectman John Marsi said he has heard similar concerns, pointing out numerous beliefs propagated on social media sites such as Facebook. He added, “It’s amazing how many people become experts in funding and taxes and it’s pretty amazing.”

Dudley Town Administrator Greg Balukonis argued the override would benefit both the schools and town.

Town Administrator Greg Balukonis balked at the suggestion that funds may eventually be redirected elsewhere.

“The board has the executive control to recommend a budget to town meeting, so the board would fulfill its obligations to direct those monies towards education and towards schools,” he said. “We’re professionals, we’re here to enforce the votes that have been taken by the public and we will do our due diligence to ensure that any vote that’s taken at town meeting is complied with by this board.”

Officials lauded one another for the offerings and performance of the town and schools despite relying on such little tax revenue. They also warned that such a trend would likely prove problematic if left to continue over the long term.

Mr. Ruda said that of the 71 communities in Central Massachusetts, Dudley has the lowest tax rate, and yet the quality of life and education is strong.

“The good news is that our schools certainly don’t reflect that we’re last, I would even argue they’re at the top of the heap. Our crime rate certainly isn’t high and doesn’t reflect being last,” he said. “We have 24-7 paramedic coverage, we have full-time coverage, and the highway keeps up the best we can. For the sake of staying 71 as opposed to 67 is almost madness to jeopardize what we have right now, as far as I’m concerned.”

Selectman Steve Sullivan concurred, noting, “The numbers don’t lie.”

“We’re the lowest like two-town district tax rate, per-pupil expenditures are at the bottom, if and when this question may pass, we’re not going to from number 71 to number 2, we’re going to go from 71 to 67, 65 maybe,” Mr. Sullivan said.

The superintendent expressed his awe at the success, but also shared his fears that it may not last.

“It’s really remarkable how well this town has been managed and how great of a place it is to live despite the tax rate,” Mr. Desto said. “You’re not going to be able to continue to do it. At some point something has to suffer and it’s either the schools or the towns or a little bit of both.”

Mr. Marsi billed the town as “a bargain no matter how you slice it,” but suggested state mandates become problematic. Mr. Balukonis agreed, but added that the override would not harm that bargain status.

“I think Dudley will still continue to be a bargain with the question passing too,” he said.

The special election will be held on April 3, with polls open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Dudley Town Hall and the Heritage School in Charlton.

Dudley Selectmen discussed the pros and cons of the Proposition 2 1/2 override on the ballot for the April 3 special election.

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