As Sudbury’s 350th birthday year began, the talk on the street, in the shops and at the town offices was of money. The Selectmen began coordinating an effort to complete a five-year financial plan to be ready early in 1990. Its goal was to create clear, all-inclusive financial guidelines. Goals for the ’90s would include a new fire headquarters, a resource recovery program at the dump, relocation of the Wood-Davison house from the Post Road to Sudbury Center, and enterprise funds that would eventually make the dump and Atkinson Pool self-sufficient.
It was obvious that the school system faced a budget squeeze unlike any that it had ever faced before. The Fincom directed the L-S School Committee to prepare a six-percent increase budget and a level-funded budget. Committee Chairman Dick Brooks responded that jobs would be cut and questioned how the school was going to function.
The schools weren’t the only ones getting the word. Fire Chief Michael Dunne and Police Chief Peter Lembo were both told that without a general override of Proposition 2 1/2, jobs would have to be cut. Librarian Bill Talentino noted that his facility would lose $26,000 if the override failed, forcing him to cut library hours drastically.
Superintendent David Jackson pointed out that no override would mean fewer teachers and larger class sizes. He foresaw many parents sending their children to private schools. He noted that he had already laid off certain middle-administrators because of 2 1/2 in 1983 and hadn’t hired them back. There wasn’t that much fat to cut.
Jackson also noted that he had to add $465,000 for expansion and interim space to handle an increased enrollment and had already cut that figure to $320,000 in his 16-percent increase budget. He further noted that the average elementary school teacher in Sudbury was making $39,000 annually. Starting teachers received $21,000 and those with Masters degrees and 16 years in the system earned $42,000.
By early February, things had gotten very serious. The Selectmen decided to put the override questions on the general town election ballot, but expressed concern on the impact of a “no override” vote. Executive Secretary Ed Thompson contacted the Massachusetts Department of Revenue to see what options the town had if the override should fail.
The stakes and the numbers were high. The Fincom pondered going for a $2.5 million override or possibly a $1 million request, pending a hearing to be held February 15 at the Town Hall. “If the override fails, every single department goes down the tubes. Either everybody makes it or no one does,” said Chairman Jack Hepting.
The final override number was $1,896,680 after the School Committee submitted a 16 percent budget increase but withdrew its proposed $8.5 million construction project at Nixon School.
Now the selling began. The Selectmen explained that Sudbury’s growth was slowing down. The Town had benefitted in the last five years from new revenue brought in by new property purchasers, $1.86 million in fiscal 1990 and $2.83 million in fiscal 1989, which was no longer there. Income from new construction was significantly lower than the previous four years.
Former Fincom Chairman Marjorie Wallace, writing in opposition to the override in the Town Crier, noted that 60 percent of the town’s residents couldn’t afford it and suggested that it was time for the town to bring its spending back under control. She pointed out that the Town had increased its spending 26 percent over the past three fiscal years. Nine of the 22 teaching positions to be cut at Lincoln-Sudbury would be eliminated anyway because of decreasing enrollment, she said.
More than 150 people jammed lower Town Hall on February 15 for an open discussion of the pros and cons of an override, something that The Town had never done successfully before. Opponents worried aloud that people would lose control and overrides would go on year after year. Proponents supported the override because they wanted quality education and were afraid property values would drop should education quality decline.
As the election approached, a half-page ad paid for by Citizens to Preserve Fiscal Responsibility Within Town Government, appeared in the Town Crier. It urged defeat of the override. “If the override wins, your taxes will go up 20 percent. Do you really think our quality of life will collapse if we vote no?” it reasoned.
Lincoln-Sudbury was also putting on the full court press. L-S School Committee member Harry Nogelo declared that the L-S budget had to increase 6.9 percent just to deal with state-mandated costs. Students whined about saving their teachers. Ed McCarthy of the Sudbury Teachers Assn. urged parents to vote the override and keep good teachers in place. Separate feelings on taxes and education, the Association said while turning the screws a little tighter by publishing a list of those to be fired if the override wasn’t successful.
On March 27, 1989, the voters spoke. The $1.8M override proposal was defeated 2831-1705 while a proposal for the construction of a Senior center passed by 10 percent. “The Town is going to have to tighten its belt” said Thompson. “I think the voters are unhappy about something and they definitely don’t want an override in the magnitude of $1.89 million.”
“I do almost see it as a mandate to town officials to take a look at how things are run,” said Wallace. “I think it was an educated decision,” added Selectman John Drobinski. “I’m disappointed with the vote, but the townspeople have spoken.”
Town Meeting got the message, quickly passing a level-funded budget that would fit under the 2 1/2 cap. The School Committee announced that it would work within its budget and not ask for additional funding.
“Clearly the message has been sent to the schools that we can’t have the money the School Committee wanted,” said Chairman Steven Bober. “This isn’t a question of belt tightening. The belt is around our necks. I think the town has to understand what’s going to happen.“
Some of the moves were immediate. Parents howled when the School Committee voted to study discontinuing bussing within a mile of schools if walkways were available, but Selectman David Wallace urged the town to pull together and not single out individual groups for criticism. Barely three weeks following the meeting, interim Lincoln-Sudbury Superintendent-Principal Robert Gardner announced plans to release 15 teachers and added he was studying a plan to institute athletic user fees in order to trim his budget by $582,000, the limit allowed by the 2 1/2 tax cap.
But the wolves were already at the door. In the November 9, 1989 edition of the Town Crier was a quarter page ad taken out by the Cambridge School of Weston. “A good education doesn’t depend on surprises,” it said.
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Sudbury, 1890-1989, 100 years in the life of a Town, a 256-page sequel to A.S. Hudson’s History of Sudbury. Autographed copies are available from Porcupine Enterprises, 106 Woodside Road, Sudbury, MA 01776. Hardbound presentation copies are $26.25 including tax plus $3.20 postage. Trade paperbacks are $12.60 including tax plus $3.20 postage.