By Bill Kirk
---- — Town Meeting could be a contentious affair this year as cuts have left the school budget in disarray, final revenue and expense numbers are still coming in, and an anti-tax cadre of citizens may be planning a floor fight to take aim at line items they feel are wasteful or misguided.
With just a few days left before the start of Town Meeting on Monday, the School Committee was still making final adjustments to its $70 million budget on the heels of $1.2 million in cuts forced on them by the town manager and Board of Selectmen.
The committee voted Tuesday night in favor of the reduced budget, which includes a proposal to lay off approximately 50 full- and part-time instructional assistants, or IAs, who help out with everything from monitoring recess to teaching autistic children.
School Committee member Barbara L’Italien said last week she couldn’t predict what the impact of the cut would be.
“It remains to be seen,” she said. “These IAs, as we heard, are taking care of some of our most vulnerable students. I do have concerns about what the impacts are going to be. I do think there’s going to be pain involved.”
However, she said, she doesn’t expect a fight on town meeting floor to restore school funding, if it comes to that.
“It’s possible, but highly unlikely,” she said. “It would take an organized group of people to do that. In North Andover, there were floor fights over the school budget in the past, but it’s a very divisive process. It’s anyone’s right to do it, but it’s divisive.”
During a selectmen’s meeting Monday night, the School Committee nearly got a reprieve when Selectman Dan Kowalski held out an olive branch in the midst of an argumentative budget process. He made a lengthy speech about how selectmen may have over-reached in their effort to cut the budget, causing severe, unexpected pain in the School Department.
He then offered to restore $200,000 in funding to the School Department to help alleviate the impact of the original cut.
His proposal was seconded by Selectman Brian Major, at which point a heated debate ensued over the purpose of Kowalski’s measure.
“So the rationale for this is frustration over the budget process?” Selectman Mary O’Donoghue asked.
Kowalski replied: “My proposal was not as a result of frustration with the budget process. My proposal was the result of late-in-the-process policy changes that should have been part of the discussion at the time we made it. We made a late policy decision that we as a board should have communicated prior to the point we did.”
He was referring to selectmen’s decision to cut $600,000 from the budget, including $400,000 from the school budget and another $200,000 from the town budget — a decision that he said put additional stress on the schools.
But Kowalski’s amendment failed on a 2-3 vote, with O’Donoghue joined by selectmen Chairman Alex Vispoli and Paul Salafia in opposition. Salafia said after the meeting he voted against giving the schools more money because he wants to send a message that the spendthrift days of yesteryear are over.
“It’s time we draw the line,” he said. “We didn’t single out the schools. We asked all town departments to cut back. It’s time we started to set the tone to save as much as possible every year.”
Townofandover.com takes aim at town finances
While selectmen and the School Committee continue hashing out the budget, a semi-organized group of people in Andover are also targeting spending, although not necessarily in the schools.
Bob Landry, a local resident who runs a company that specializes in health care issues, started a website a year or so ago called “townofandover.com,” with the stated mission of providing transparency in local government. Landry worked closely with the late Greg Rigby, who died in February, to post information about all sorts of internal and external town government decisions.
He is continuing that work himself and has been meeting with other groups around town to come up with a strategy on how to approach Town Meeting. An online survey went up last week to gauge voter interest on issues headed to Town Meeting.
Last year, members of his group nearly succeeded in cutting the town’s health insurance budget — falling just 87 votes shy.
This year, with more members and more information on its website, the group has created a loosely organized coalition of like-minded people whose members will take turns at Town Meeting in an effort to cut the budget, Landry said.
“It’s shocking how we can spend 45 minutes on a dog park, yet Article 4 — a $160 million budget — just gets rubber-stamped,” he said. “The budget gets put up and people just go along. The choice is either: ‘Choose the budget or we have no police or fire department.’
“Dog parks are important, but not as important as the $160 million we spend on the town budget.”
Landry said if nothing else, he wants to promote more discussion about costly expenses.
“Our view is that there needs to be a more robust form of debate,” he said. “Town Meeting should be full of debate and amendments with active discussion on Article 4 (the budget).”
He said that while selectmen did trim more than $1 million from the budget, the question remains: “Did they go far enough? Are citizens in town satisfied? Residents are going to take matters into their own hands.”
As such, he expects amendments to be proposed on the use of $1.5 million in free cash to shore up the so-called OPEB account, which funds non-pension benefits to retired town workers.
“Taxpayers shouldn’t pay a dime until the system is reformed in a major way,” he said. “It’s a retirement benefit; why shouldn’t it work just like a pension?”
He said members of his group, which is drawing from a variety of disenchanted, overtaxed residents, may also tackle more specific items in the budget, such as the hiring of employees, including a new person in the Police Department to handle gun permits and a program coordinator for Andover Youth Services, and an unapproved lease by the School Department for new computers.
“Nobody in our group is thinking of anything Draconian,” Landry said. “It’s really just a handful of targeted amendments.”