June 10, 2009
By James Fuccione
The Lincoln-Sudbury Regional District School Committee went straight to the source to get information on the state’s ongoing budget discussions. The School Committee hosted Sen. James Eldridge, D-Acton, and Rep. Tom Conroy, D-Wayland, at a June 9 meeting.
“What we’re hoping to do is have an informal exchange of information on where the budget is going to be this year and the following year,â€ said School Committee member Radha Gargeya.
Sen. Susan Fargo, D-Lincoln, was also invited but had to tend to a family matter and could not make the meeting, said Conroy.
Eldridge and Conroy each gave their version of where the budget process stood. Although the budget projections were dim, the legislators pledged their support to the School Committee as well as their commitment to find increased revenues.
Eldridge led off by noting the $3 billion in cuts in the state budget and how the Senate’s version of that budget ended up at $1.6 billion less than the House version due to declining revenues in the time between when the two entities released their numbers.
Eldridge said he fought for raising the income tax to obtain new revenues, but fell short. He applauded Conroy and his House colleagues for raising the sales tax, which he called a “braveâ€ move.
Conroy said the sales tax revenue could be dedicated solely to transportation and that those revenues, along with the income tax revenues, are projected to fall while unemployment will rise and capital gains tax money would “stay flat at best.â€
Conroy did report the Legislature is taking steps to reduce the state’s reliance on the capital gains tax. Conroy advised the School Committee to err on the side of caution at Sudbury Town Meeting as the budget would not be finalized at that point.
Other potential revenue streams discussed by the legislators include lifting the alcohol tax exemption and closing a loophole that would allow municipalities to tax telecommunications companies for land taken by telephone poles.
According to MASSPIRG, the telecom loophole was established in 1915 as a way to bring telephones into homes when the industry consisted of one company with publicly established profit margins. The exemption initially kept companies from paying rent on telephone poles, but now, according to MASSPIRG, all utilities are required to pay property taxes on above ground poles and wires and/or their switching equipment, while telephone companies are exempted.
“I think this is the one stream that’s a no-brainer,â€ said Eldridge.
L-S Director of Finance and Operations Judy Belliveau, along with School Committee members, expressed concern over regional transportation and the special education circuit breaker. Committee member Jack Ryan compared the costs for special education to health care, saying there should also be a cost containment reform effort in schools.
Conroy agreed both have escalating costs and Eldridge mentioned a piece of current legislation that would require health insurers to pay more for medical costs associated with special needs students. Eldridge, who is chairman of the Joint Committee for Municipalities and Regional Government, added that his committee plans to report on a bill recommended by the Municipal Relief Commission in about a month, which could help cities and towns.
Gargeya asked both legislators about whether the formula for Chapter 70 school funding from the state could be altered to help a town like Sudbury who, according to Gargeya, is among the top towns in the state as far as the percentage of families who send children to public school.
Conroy said one of the first actions he took after getting elected was sitting down with the Department of Education to go over the Chapter 70 spreadsheets. He said he noticed Sudbury was one of the few towns with growing enrollment and that, after review, the aid numbers rose correspondingly. Conroy said he has reiterated Sudbury’s uniqueness in terms of its growth and the need for revenue to House Speaker Robert DeLeo.
In other business taken up by the School Committee, a $30,000 donation from the Booster Club was approved to be put towards the purchase of a 14-passenger van, which will be used for athletics and activities. As discussed in previous meetings, a coach or school district employee would be responsible for driving the vehicle and varsity athletics would get much of the usage.
Belliveau said the cost of the van is $42,000 and will come out of the operating budget, but that the district projects savings of about $15,000 to $20,000 per year.
“It’s a one time cost to save significant money each year,â€ said Belliveau.