As anyone who is paying attention knows, on March 12 Newton voters will be given the opportunity to vote on 3 override votes: 2 debt exclusions (to build new Cabot and Angier schools) and an operating override, to pay for renovating/expanding Zervas school, hiring new teachers and cops, a revamped fire station, and sidewalk and road repair.
I voted against the last override in 2008, but will be voting yes on all 3 of these votes.
I voted no last time because I felt the money would not “solve the problem” but instead exacerbate it by throwing good money after bad. Especially since at that time school costs were rising at an average of nearly 6% a year, while our city revenue rise is capped at 2.5% a year, I thought “Why should anyone give them more money until they show us they can set a sustainable budget?” Then on top of that to have built an extravagant high school without establishing a budget ahead of time, at a time when my son could not wash his hands after going to the bathroom because none of the faucets in the boys bathroom worked (and I had to raise hell to get them repaired), I thought whoever was in charge of our city was not equipped to spend the existing money well, much less giving them more.
So I am very sympathetic to those who are angry about the cost of the new North, to those who are angry that we sold off all those elementary and middle schools years ago, and to those who are angry that we underfunded building maintenance for so long.
However I genuinely believe that things have changed. Most importantly, we have a new mayor who seems to have a better grasp of arithmetic, because for the first time in many years, he negotiated agreements with all 10 city unions in which costs, including health care costs, rise no more than 2.5% a year. The reason that is such a monumental achievement is that salaries and benefits comprise over 80% of the school budget… so getting that under control was basically solving the problem. In addition we have privatized the foodservice, which we used to have to subsidize at a million dollars a year but now breaks even.
In addition, the needs are real. Our student population is exploding: we have added nearly 600 kids in the last three years -- the equivalent of two elementary schools -- without opening any new schools. And we have over 800 more kids slated to arrive over the next 5 years. We have installed numerous modular classrooms as a “short term” fix that in some cases have been there for twenty years. Cabot and Angier are a disgrace, but will be rebuilt with greater capacity. Zervas will be renovated with greater capacity. It’s really not right for kids with special needs to be receiving services in closets and hallways, but that’s what we have now. And the operating override will allow more teachers to be hired to teach these hundreds more kids that are coming.
Will money get wasted somehow? Undoubtedly. There will still be human beings in charge after all. But I just wanted to share my perspective as someone who has a healthy dose of skepticism about the need for higher taxes, and as someone who attends every School Committee meeting so is paying pretty close attention, I will be voting yes on all 3 overrides and feel that the need is real and that it is truly an investment in the city I grew up in, and where I returned to raise my own kids.