By Conor Powers-Smith
Mayor Gail Infurna and other city officials heard from Melrose seniors about plans to pass an override of Proposition 2 1/2 at a recent forum at the Milano Family Senior Center.
Details of the ballot question, slated to go before voters in a special election in the spring of next year, have yet to be decided, as Infurna looks for a figure that will both adequately close the funding gap in the city’s school budget, and be palatable to a community that overwhelmingly rejected a $2.25 million override initiative three years ago.
“We’re still working with it, but we will have the amount of money in the next few weeks,” said Infurna, who plans to deliver an override proposal to the Board of Aldermen in that timeframe. “What we’re looking at is to really fix the problem."
The latest forum followed two listening sessions at Melrose High School in recent weeks. Officials said they received valuable feedback from all of those events.
“We heard excellent comments today,” Infurna said after the latest forum, which drew around 20 seniors. “Some were different from what we heard at the previous two, which is great, that’s just what we wanted to hear. I think they asked some good questions. Being a smaller group, we were able to do a little bit of a more intimate question-and-answer type of a thing.”
Ward 7 Alderman Scott Forbes agreed that hearing from residents is valuable as the board prepares to take up the issue.
“When you go to the high school you get one perspective, when you go to the senior center you get another perspective,” he said. “Being able to get out into the community and get as much back and forth with the residents as possible is obviously a good thing. But I think all of us are just waiting to see what the question looks like and how it’s worded.”
'The bottom of the barrel'
Concerns included the low ranking the Melrose school system currently occupies among those of other Massachusetts communities in terms of per-pupil spending and teacher salaries. State Rep. Paul Brodeur (D-32nd Middlesex) said Melrose’s lowly position in such rankings is no artifact of comparing it to larger communities; even among fellow members of the Middlesex League, the city comes up short.
“Stoneham, Wakefield, maybe Belmont, Lexington, Woburn, when you look at those communities, which are a lot like us in terms of their student populations, we’re still at the bottom of the barrel in terms of our per-pupil spending,” said Brodeur.
A bigger pie
Some seniors worried that schools divert city funds from public safety and other important areas. Infurna said the way to solve that conflict is not to squabble over the available resources, but to grow the total pie.
“Each year the Board of Aldermen allocates to the School Department anywhere from $600,000 to $800,000, because there’s a funding gap there, so if we can get the schools sustainable through an override, then that frees up the money for other city departments to do what they need to do,” she said. “If the override does not pass, we still have to give the schools a big pot of money, because they do need to meet net spending [requirements], as well as other things. Then that will, if you want to call it ‘deprive,’ the other city departments of things, and that’s where we’ll have to manage our budget and we’ll have to decrease some services, make some drastic decreases in services. We need to get the schools sustainable so we can free up money to help other city departments.”
Property and Housing
Other worried that an override of Proposition 2 ½ would affect residents living in senior housing, but Infurna pointed out that the proposal would only impact homeowners, since it would entail a rise in property tax rates. She added that seniors could feel the lack of services if the schools were to continue to draw funds from other departments.
“For those in senior housing—Levi Gould, Cochrane, Steele House, Fuller House, McCarthy—for those people who live there, this does not have an increase in any sort of payments that you’re doing,” she said. “But if not passed, it could affect you, because of the services that you enjoy here in our community.”
'A really funky thing'
Brodeur pointed out a common misconception about Proposition 2 ½, which does not deal directly with tax rates, but rather limits the amount by which a community can raise its total tax levy. Even if property values sore—as they have in Melrose in recent years—tax rates actually decline, due to the bottleneck created by the strict limit on the total dollars the city can raise.
“Property tax rates in Massachusetts are a really funky thing, because the rate is driven by how much Proposition 2 ½ allows you to take in,” Brodeur said. “The tax rate has actually dropped here in Melrose, because regardless of what all our property is worth, if it goes from say a billion to a billion and a half, we can still only take in two and a half percent more than we did the year before, so the rate’s going to drop to reflect that.”
'Things will go well'
Lisa Lewis and Alison Sarnoski, founders of the OneMelrose campaign advocating in favor of the override, said the recent public forums have made them optimistic about Melrosians’ level of engagement with the override drive, and its chances in the spring.
“It’s really exciting to see how invested our residents are in our city,” said Sarnoski. “That has been the take-home for me from all of these, that people really care about what happens in our city, and I think we all want to see it continue to grow and flourish. I’m really excited by what I’ve heard.”
“I personally am really proud of our community for all the people who have come out and spoken up and shared their opinions,” said Lewis. “I think it is good for the community to do this together, and I’m thrilled that the mayor has come out and been very open and responsive so far. I hope that if this spirit continues, things will go well.”