YARMOUTH — A proposed $1 million increase in next year’s school budget has ignited a rare political dispute in a community that prizes its well-funded education system, regarded as one of the best in the state.

Lawn signs presenting pro- and anti-budget positions have sprouted around town and opposing camps have bombarded town councilors with calls and emails, urging them to support or oppose the proposed spending plan. In some cases, budget opponents say they have been bullied and intimidated for speaking in opposition to what they regard as runaway spending, Some are hesitant to resist the budget because they fear they will be cast as anti-education, said Deborah Delp, who has helped organize a campaign aimed at getting the Town Council to reject the School Committee’s proposed budget.

“Only a few of us are willing to speak out. We speak for many because they just won’t,” Delp said.

But Tim Shannon, who organized the Yes for Yarmouth campaign to support the budget, said accounts of intimidation are just rumors.

“Honestly, I think that is nonsense. I haven’t seen any instance of it, I haven’t heard any instance of it. There has been a completely civil conversation about this,” Shannon said.

The Town Council is considering a $23.1 million school budget that is almost 5 percent, roughly $1 million, bigger than last year’s spending plan. The budget increase is balanced with more state aid, meaning the school budget will only increase local taxes 1.6 percent, according to a February presentation from Superintendent Andrew Dolloff. Combined with Yarmouth’s municipal spending, the budget actually includes a slight tax rate decrease, making 2017 the third fiscal year property tax rates will have gone down.

Increased school spending is driven primarily by unprecedented growth in student population, which has increased 14 percent in the past five years, to an all-time high of slightly more than 1,600 students. To accommodate the growth, Yarmouth is planning to hire new full-time teachers for the third and eighth grades, a full-time nurse and eight part-time staff members. The budget also includes a staff pay increase, new supplies and equipment, and $80,000 for school technology.

Despite the increase, School Committee Chairman Tim Wheaton said the spending plan is a “maintenance” budget that does not provide new programming outside of an increase for high school music. Some parents are concerned about large class sizes and say they would like to see more education spending, not less, Wheaton said.

“There is what seems to be a demand in our community to expand educational programming, including sensitivity to class sizes,” he said.

FOR SOME, A BREAKING POINT

Yarmouth has historically supported its schools, regarded as some of the best in the state, as a way to attract new residents and increase property values. In the past five years, voters have overwhelmingly supported school budget increases, regularly approving budgets with 70 percent of the vote. Some residents have voted against the budgets, but it rarely spills into the public sphere.

“There is always a pocket of people who want us to be concerned with holding the line on spending,” said Town Council Chairman Randall Bates. “There were never signs out or anything like that, but there was certainly some debate.”

He added: “I think there are competing forces going on in Yarmouth. We are always trying to balance having a fine, top-notch school system but recognize there are other needs in town.”

But for some residents, next year’s budget is a breaking point. Bruce Soule, who helped organize school budget opponents around the Yarmouth Tax Study Committee, said he wants the Town Council to reevaluate the budget and question priorities. Even though this year’s budget will mean a tax rate decrease, Soule said he and others are tired of yearly spending increases that support programs in addition to what the state determines are essential for education, at the expense of other municipal spending.

“We are providing a private school education with a public school tax rate,” Soule said. “At some point, where do you stop paying for all the extras that are beyond the needs determined by the state?”

In an April 13 letter to the Town Council, Soule asked councilors to reject the school budget and give the School Committee a goal to tie future increases to economic indicators such as Social Security cost-of-living adjustments and inflation. His group has collected 180 signatures in support of its position and he said that number represents a much larger groundswell of residents.

“We are just looking at this spending running out of control. More and more items just keep on getting pushed on the taxpayer that rightly should be paid by the parents,” Soule said.

Shannon, with the Yes for Yarmouth campaign, said budget opponents are a very small group of taxpayers. Most residents are willing to pay for education and feel school spending benefits the town as a whole, he said.

“There are always people who categorically oppose change and categorically oppose taxes, no matter what the need,” he said. “I think there has always been a small minority of discontented ‘no’ people and this year somebody thought to get a sign. It just made visible that minority view,” he added. “I don’t think their support extends beyond the signs, whereas ours does.”

Budget support was on display at a public hearing last Thursday. More than a dozen residents stood up to voice their support for the budget, compared to a handful who criticized additional spending. The seven-member Town Council voted unanimously to move the budget forward to a second and final public hearing on May 5, in advance of the town meeting on June 7 and a ballot referendum June 14.

Although his group aims to get the council to reject the budget before a townwide vote, Soule said his group would keep up the pressure into the June election.

“We are going to carry on and see if we can convince enough people in town who want the budget to be controlled to vote it down,” he said.

 

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