$2.9m school override takes center stage
The future quality of Norwell’s public schools, its home values, and even the character of the town itself have become urgent topics among residents preparing to vote on a nearly $2.9 million tax-limit override on Saturday.
Local politicians and School Committee members have appeared at town forums, neighborhood cocktail parties, and in front of seniors’ groups to talk about the tough choice before voters. The town will be damaged and the schools will suffer keenly, they have said, if the proposed override fails.
Cautious residents have fired back with questions about municipal finance and the price tag attached to a permanent tax increase. The owner of a home with the town’s average property value, $541,000, iwould pay approximately $690 more a year in taxes.
“There is a lot of talk about it in town,” said the Board of Selectmen’s chairman, John Mariano, who predicted a strong turnout of perhaps 4,000 voters, or 40 percent of the town’s population of approximately 10,500. Norwell’s Advisory Board and Board of Selectmen, generally regarded as fiscally conservative, have declared themselves in favor of the override.
The upcoming vote is clearly the hot topic in Norwell. Signs urging support abound on manicured lawns, and some young people have stood, even danced, on the town common, holding affirmative slogans. A well-organized parent group, Invest in Norwell, has spent several months networking through social media and live events, identifying votes and working to get people to the polls. The group’s Facebook site has nearly 200 “Likes” from individuals in support of the override.
Yet for citizens familiar with the ways such things go down in Norwell, the override’s success is far from a sure bet, said Donald Brown, 69, a Norwell resident of 40 years. He drew parallels with the failed $2.2 million override in 2005 that he described as “overwhelmingly approved” at Town Meeting only to be “overwhelmingly defeated” at the polls.
“The whole question was, where was the silent majority that came out against it?” he said. “It is the same now. You’re not going to hear senior citizens talk openly about this issue. But I’ll tell you this: Four houses on my street have young families with children in the school system. Four of 13 houses on my street have lawn signs in support of the override. What does that tell you?”
Brown said he is an undecided voter and has not been persuaded by the “totally one-sided” views put forward by Invest in Norwell. He said he felt lambasted with warnings that real estate values and the reputation of the school system are at stake.
“We have to support our schools, but I’m concerned that it is this much money all at once. It is almost like it is all or nothing, and that’s what I don’t like. It kind of reminds me of what is going on in Washington,” he said.
A successful override would mainly provide local schools with key resources to meet the demands triggered by a student population surge, including 17 new full-time educators, two new school buses, and money for textbooks, technology, and athletics. It will also fund a full-time human resources director and an accounting department position, previously part time, at Town Hall.
In an effort to ease concerns, Mariano recently spoke with groups of seniors at the Council on Aging and Donovan Farm.
“We tried to communicate to them the importance of maintaining the schools and keeping up the services in the town. I think the response was positive. This is really about protecting the most important asset we have in Norwell, which is the school system. I think people are seeing the need, ” he said.
Parents are nervous and waiting to see how the override vote turns out, said Amanda Metzger, a mother of three in the public schools. She and her husband, Jon, both doctors, moved to Norwell in 1998 because of the strong school system, and she says many families they know did the same.
She said she and her husband could finance private educations for their children but have grown to love the Norwell schools. They would hate to see such strong programs — music, art, athletics — dismantled, she said.
“We held up signs at the town green this weekend. It is the first time I’ve ever held up a sign,” she said, adding with a laugh: “It was so exciting — I felt like a beauty queen. Everyone was honking.”
While she enjoyed this light-hearted moment of solidarity with fellow supporters, Metzger was serious about the high stakes on Saturday.
“We are on eggshells waiting to see what happens. My older boy is hoping to take three AP courses next year. Will he be able to do that? I don’t know what will happen and what it will mean for my children,” she said.
Meanwhile, a sprinkling of lawn signs against the override has begun appearing in front of homes, particularly near Circuit and Pine streets, a trend tracked by Invest in Norwell on the group’s Facebook site.
“Yes, the no signs are popping up around town. They’re a good reminder that this is going to be a very close call at the ballot on Saturday. Each and every vote will make a difference!” said a recent posting by Invest in Norwell.
A second ballot question Saturday will ask residents to ratify amendments to the town charter, which were passed at Town Meeting last year. The amendments have been approved on Beacon Hill and signed by Governor Deval Patrick, and now require final approval from Norwell voters.
Meg Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.