Editorial: Orange needs options for dealing with school cuts

Monday, May 14, 2018

Orange budget writers are seeing red ink this year, and it’s not at all clear how to deal with it.
At the moment, the town Finance Committee is looking at about a $460,000 gap between what the town can raise in revenue and what department heads think they need for the year that begins July 1.

Finance Committee Chairman Robert Stack says this looming shortfall comes from the “most challenging” budget since he started on the committee in 2012, and he warns that “unless there’s a miracle” before the annual Town Meeting on June 18, town officials will have to cut the current $20 million spending plan by up to $460,000.

Traditionally, in our small towns, education accounts for a huge chunk of spending. Around 57 percent of the Orange’s budget goes toward funding the Mahar regional schools, Orange elementary schools, Franklin County Technical School and Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School. And that seems to be where most of the projected spending increase is coming from. Schools often have large spending hikes that aren’t easily controlled: previously negotiated pay raises for teachers and staff, increased busing and heating oil costs and often unpredictable and mandatory special education costs, for example.

Original proposals from Orange elementary schools and Mahar indicated they would need an additional $1.5 million more than their combined roughly $10 million appropriation this year. There have already been discussions of school cuts — by cutting late buses and one scheduled bus at Mahar, and by increasing class sizes by eliminating sections at the elementary schools. So that original $1.5 million has already been halved to about $750,000, Stack said. School leaders should be commended for trimming their requests already, even if it may be just the first pass at cutting.

Eliminating a counselor at Mahar, and getting rid of private groundskeepers have also been discussed. To lock down their spending requests, the Mahar Regional School Committee is set to meet May 24, while the Orange School Committee will likely meet in the first week of June just ahead of Town Meeting.

Sometimes it’s possible to increase revenue in tandem with spending hikes, to avoid tax hikes, but that doesn’t seem likely this year. But this year state aid has decreased somewhat, according to Stack. And growth of the local tax base — the total value of taxable property — has slowed, from a $67,000 increase to $63,000 this year. This slow revenue growth is especially troublesome because Orange is not a rich community. It has the 18th-lowest per-capita income in the state — $18,100 compared to the state average of $42,000.

When state aid and natural growth of taxable property stall, the only other way to raise revenue is to boost local property taxes. Stack is doubtful the town’s voters will want to do that.

“The average tax bill in Orange is $3,217, and that’s an increase of almost $500 over the past four years,” Stack said at a meeting with the Selectboard recently. “The average in the state is $5,400, but it’s much more difficult for people in Orange to pay with the income they have.”

Stack is certainly right about that. Even in wealthier towns, voters in recent times have been reluctant to raises taxes through a Proposition 2½ tax cap override.

That’s why we were surprised when acting Selectboard Chairman Ryan Mailloux and Selectboard member Jane Peirce suggested an override might be necessary and possible — considering the community’s historically strong support for education.

At the same time, Mailloux suggested, rightly, that the ultimate answer will be a “combination of solutions,” including cuts in spending across the board and maybe differently sized override options.

“I think if the people of Orange know that the schools are on the line, it’s going to pass,” Mailloux said, his sentiment backed by Peirce.

While the road ahead is going to difficult, we have always been impressed with the townspeople and their elected leaders to find their way. Stack has expressed confidence in the various bodies in Orange to come up with solutions, and so do we.

“It’s not all doom and gloom,” Stack said. “This Finance Committee has presented a balanced budget every year.”

Unfortunately, as Stack has said, the numbers cannot balance themselves and the Finance Committee will need to figure out how to do that.

We think that part of that planning could be very specific override proposals coupled with budget cuts, so voters could see exactly what they are keeping or losing if they choose to tax themselves more through an override, or not.

But in the meantime, the Finance Committee should be supported and thanked for preparing for the worst by proposing how to reach a balanced budget with the full $460,000 in cuts. Because, if an override doesn’t pass in June, it will be the Finance Committee’s responsibility to immediately propose necessary cuts.