On March 14, Newton residents will face three questions on their special election ballots. The three ballot initiatives will decide whether or not the city increases its tax levy to override the 1980 state law Proposition 2 ½, which limits the amount of property tax revenue a community can raise each year.
Question One asks to raise property taxes for a general operating override of $9.175 million, half of which will go towards funding for Newton Public Schools (NPS). The remainder will help fund senior services, road and sidewalk improvements, park and playground maintenance and tree planting.
Questions Two and Three ask to raise property taxes to fund two debt exclusion overrides that would provide funding of $3.5 million and $2.3 million to the Franklin and Countryside Elementary Schools construction projects, respectively. Debt exclusion overrides cease once construction of the projects is complete, so once the construction costs are paid (around 2030), the annual tax increases of an average of $183 will be removed.
If the general operating override is passed, the median homeowner would have to pay $290 more in taxes each year.
The City Council’s Nov. 21 decision to hold a special election on these measures comes at a historic moment for Newton due to the rarity of overrides in our city, relative to our neighboring communities. Since 2000, Brookline has passed five overrides, Lexington has passed nine, Needham has passed 11 and Wellesley has passed 14.
In Newton, successful overrides passed in 2002 and 2013, the latter providing the funding for the construction of Zervas Elementary School and the Fire Department Headquarters. It also led to street repairs and the hiring of 51 new educators and aides in schools, as well as four police officers.
Newton is long overdue for a tax increase. Pandemic inflation rose from 1.4% in 2020 to 6.5% in 2022, according to the U.S. Labor Department’s data. The NPS budget saw $5.1 million in new expenses in areas like health insurance, gas, utilities and transportation. Franklin and Countryside are crumbling. We all bear witness to the deteriorating infrastructure in Newton, especially during this winter season — roads need to be fixed, sidewalks improved and parks maintained.
To ensure this spending doesn’t become another heap to the pile of our city’s debt of $25 million, we need to secure an increase in tax revenue for a better Newton for everyone, especially its youngest residents. By concentrating the bulk of the revenue from this override into public schools, the city government shows their commitment to education, perhaps Newton’s biggest drawing factor.
Conditions in those public schools, however, are worsening. The Roar staff recalls experiences at Countryside and pre-2013 Zervas with leaky pipes, broken temperature systems and a general deterioration straying from the shiny public image of this town’s school system. After Zervas’ renovation, younger siblings of our staff report having a more pleasant school experience.
Countryside, on the other hand, is in high need of improvements. Built on wetlands in the 1950s, the school has experienced significant flooding and relies on sewage pumps to keep its basement above water, according to its existing conditions report. Without the additional taxes for Countryside and Franklin, Mayor Fuller reported that the city will not have the debt service capacity to gain state funding that will pay for the bulk of the construction projects.
In regards to our own school, South would stand to gain a lot from the override; or rather, it would stand to lose less than without it. South would be able to avoid overcrowded classrooms, teacher and supply cuts and class fees like in art classes. We could keep small electives, specialty programs that allow our school to thrive in unique and engaging ways.
However, there are two sides to the override to take into account — elementary schools’ enrollment is on the decline, with a projected drop of 8% from now until 2027, raising questions about investing further in smaller schools like Franklin.
Small businesses that are still struggling to return from pre-pandemic normalcy would suffer higher taxes, despite many store owners not living in Newton and not having a say in the vote’s outcome. And adding to taxes in an already expensive city seems, to some, excessive.
Even so, increasing taxes is valid if it goes to improving the community. Not only is our city built on the promise of a strong education, but our state relies on education as an investment into future income. With the prospect of new direction under a new superintendent, these new funds will provide a fresh start as our community exits pandemic restrictions.
As a community, we cannot afford to give up on funding our children. Schools have always been and must remain a top priority.