Last week, 106 Marlow voters showed up to a testy special school district meeting on the budget. By a pretty wide 69-37 margin, they voted to cut the school budget by $250,000. But the measure failed, nonetheless, and would have even if all 106 voted unanimously for the cut.
That’s because, according to state law, half the registered voters in the district — 278, according to officials — had to show up and vote to make the meeting official. Had the school board sought to call the meeting, that would not be so. But school officials opposed the cut, even while acknowledging the budget passed in March was too high. At last week’s meeting, administrators argued they could afford no more than a $77,000 cut to the $2,080,138 figure.
To understand all that, let’s back up a bit.
Heading into the school district’s meeting, the big topic was the $508,818 jump in the proposed school budget. Officials said it had to do with a handful of students in need of special, out-of-district placements. School districts are required by state law to find and pay for alternative arrangements for children whose needs cannot be met within the district, which can sometimes result in widely fluctuating special education costs from year to year.
After a 2½-hour debate, voters approved the 32 percent hike, which adds more than $1,000 to the tax bill on a $200,000 home in town. By June, however, word reached the school board that two of the special-needs students wouldn’t require such costly measures. Two residents, one of them a selectman, asked the board to revisit the budget, but were rebuffed. They went to court and were told only the school board or administration could petition for a new meeting.
So they petitioned the board, a process under which, if done properly, requires a meeting to be called; but the high hurdle of needing half the town’s voters, combined with the school board’s opposition to the measure, almost assured failure.
At the meeting, school administrators noted the district has six more middle-school and high-school kids than were expected when the budget was constructed, and said the surplus is only about $77,000 — not $250,000. The town’s middle and high school students attend Keene schools, and the district pays tuition to Keene for them.
Though the issue was, then, pretty much settled before it even began, those who showed up at the John D. Perkins Sr. Academy’s multi-purpose room spent an hour wading through an uncomfortable topic that many other districts have also faced: The unfairness of paying for schools mainly via local property tax bills, which pits those with few resources against those with more.
We’ve seen it played out over and over in multi-town school districts that combine property-poor communities and those that are wealthier. In this case, it was the same dynamic, writ small, as it was in Marlborough last year under similar circumstances. In that case, the school budget had also spiked because of special-needs costs. And voters not only got angry about the tax hike, the meeting also became uncomfortably close to flat-out name-calling and shaming the families of those students.
Marlow’s meeting didn’t reach that point, but the conversation did get heated, and it also pitted those on fixed incomes against parents of schoolchildren.
“It’s really sad when you work your whole life, and all you got is Social Security coming in, and now you’re at The Community Kitchen, feeding yourself,” said one Marlow voter. “… But oh no, the children have the priority. That can be hard for some people to understand.”
Another longtime resident launched into a rant, dropping a couple of expletives and calling the town “crap.”
That was undoubtedly the result of frustration, and though some rallied to the town’s defense, it’s unlikely anyone really thinks of Marlow that way, least of all its residents. One might, however, use the term to describe a tax and education-funding system that pits vulnerable seniors and those without means against special-needs students and their families.