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NEWTON

Schools request $11.6m increase

Proposal dwarfs mayor's allocation

Newton Superintendent Jeffrey Young with Newton North High principal Jennifer Price. (BILL POLO/GLOBE STAFF)

Although the school district superintendent's spending proposal would throw the city's new budget out of balance, officials say it is too early to say whether a property tax override would be necessary to balance the books for next year.

Superintendent Jeffrey Young this week unveiled a budget for the 2007-2008 school year that contains no cuts, restores programs, and is $4.8 million more than Mayor David B. Cohen had allocated for the schools. The School Committee directed Young to prepare the no-cuts budget last month after members said that the system could not maintain educational quality while sustaining cuts for the fifth year in a row.

The $155.5 million budget proposal, which will be the subject of a public hearing by the School Committee in two weeks, is widely expected to fuel discussion of a possible property tax override.

"It is still the beginning stages of the budget process," said Cohen's spokesman, Jeremy Solomon. "We just don't have enough information to say definitively whether there will be an override."

Based on an expected 2008 revenue increase of nearly $10 million, Cohen last month said that he would earmark a $6.8 million increase for the schools, representing a 4.8 percent bump from the current school budget.

Young, however, said that the school system needs a 7.3 percent increase just to keep pace with salaries and health insurance costs, and an expected enrollment increase of 231 students. His budget proposes an increase of nearly $11.6 million, or about 8 percent.

Most of the increase in Young's budget would go to maintain current programs and class sizes. But the superintendent also wants to restore time for art and music education for elementary school students, and add about $1 million worth of initiatives in middle school instruction, math, technology, and building maintenance.

While calling a possible override a "political question," Young said that the budget was designed to send a message to the city's residents about what it will take to maintain quality schools.

"I think that we as a city need to look in the mirror and decide who we want to be," he said at a news conference this week.

"We're deluding ourselves if we think we can have it all without paying for it."

School Committee chairwoman Dori Zaleznik said she was pleased with Young's budget, which she also viewed as the catalyst for a public discussion about education in Newton.

Young "did what we asked him to do, and I think it's important that the community engage in the conversation," she said. Zaleznik said it is now up to the mayor to "find a way to close the gap."

Alderman Ken Parker, a frequent critic of the mayor, said that while there are good proposals in Young's budget, school officials are taking a risk by not making a more modest request.

"What I am trying to understand is what their Plan B is if they don't get this money," Parker said. "Time is already running out."

The override debate for fiscal 2008 began in earnest last month, sparked both by the School Committee's directive to Young for a no-cuts budget and by the release of a report on the city's finances by a blue-ribbon panel of experts appointed by the mayor.

The panel predicted that Newton would face escalating budget deficits over the next five years, and that the gap could be as much as $35.7 million in 2012. The panel predicted a $6.1 million deficit for the 2008, nearly twice what city officials said they expect for the fiscal year starting July 1.

The panel's report recommended property tax increases, by overriding the limits of Proposition 2 1/2, to close the gap.

Both Cohen and Zaleznik have said that the need for an override hinges in part on how much local aid the Legislature approves.

So far, the news from the State House has not been encouraging. Governor Deval Patrick's budget proposal would give the city $20.1 million in local aid.

Solomon said the city was expecting $20.7 million, and that the missing $600,000 appears to be in Chapter 70 aid, which is earmarked for education. Solomon said that the city hopes state legislators will add local-aid money to the governor's proposal, as they did for this year's budget.

The School Committee began a series of discussions on the budget this week, with plans for a public hearing on March 22.

Ralph Ranalli can be reached at rranalli@globe.com.

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