Thursday, 4:30 PM
Parents step up, help fill school shortfall
By Maria Sacchetti, Globe Staff
NORTHBRIDGE — When a tax override failed, Northbridge parents and children prepared to lose everything that made school fun: sports teams, clubs, even the elementary school choir.
Then Scott Wallen, father of a student athlete, offered an unorthodox solution. If parents borrowed $110,000 and donated it to the schools, he told a meeting of town residents last week, they could keep the programs during fall semester.
Most of the 100 people in the room gawked at him. But seven volunteers stepped forward, and a movement was born.
The parents’ generosity is bringing a jolt of excitement, as well as some mixed feelings, to this former mill town of 14,000 tucked into the thick woods and tranquil ponds of the Blackstone Valley. Some worry that the town and state governments are shirking their responsibility to fund activities that keep students from dropping out of school or help them get into college. Others hailed the parents’ willingness to put themselves on the line.
‘‘What I saw was the number and thought, are you out of your mind?’’ said parent Kathryn Ducey. ‘‘I didn’t put my name on the list. I’m not in the position to do that right now. But I give a lot of credit to those people who did.’’
Ducey is president of the new Northbridge Education Foundation, which will coordinate the fund-raising effort. It will seek donations from residents and businesses totaling at least $110,000 to repay the debt, so the parents don’t have to.
Northbridge is one of many Massachusetts cities and towns confronting cuts to schools and services because of depleted coffers and failed property tax overrides.
In Northbridge, the cuts are slicing into family life: Last month, the town library, once open 40 hours a week, slashed its schedule to 12 hours a week. The senior center is scaling back its hours, too. Street lights will soon remain dark at night in some areas. And the town beach, where children take swimming lessons, will stay closed all summer.
School foundations are common in bigger cities and wealthy towns such as Brookline and Belmont, where parents raffle off Mini Coopers or fancy dinners to raise thousands of dollars. But Northbridge is largely a working-class town, a mix of lifelong residents like Wallen and professionals drawn to the town’s affordable housing and strong school system.
The director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees said he had never heard of parents taking out a loan to help their schools.
After the $3.7 million property tax override failed last month in Northbridge, parents launched the foundation to raise money for schools. But by the meeting last week, Wallen said parents realized that the foundation could not collect enough money in time. That’s when he suggested that parents borrow start-up money, then wait for the foundation to collect donations to pay them back.
If the plan fails, Wallen and the 11 other parents who have signed on as of Friday could be on the hook for nearly $10,000 each. The foundation is trying to raise another $215,000 for winter and spring sports and clubs.
Maria Sacchetti can be reached at email@example.com.