ORLEANS — At an extraordinary online meeting of the town’s and regional school system’s leadership July 22, Nauset Superintendent Tom Conrad pledged that he and his colleagues will be “good partners and find ways to help each other in terms of saving precious dollars we have coming in from the community.”
“We’re anxious to brainstorm with others and find ways to find savings to still serve educational needs and meet concerns taxpayers might have with the rising cost of the operation,” he said.
During another fiscal stability work session, Finance Director Cathy Doane reviewed the decision point facing Orleans. The town is at the limit of its excess tax levy capacity, and 81 percent of its revenue comes from the tax base. “There’s less than 2 percent from state aid,” she said, “and the rest comes from fees and other revenue sources.” Levy capacity increases limited to 2½ percent annually plus a number, around $200,000, for new growth, are not enough to meet expenses that are rising at a higher rate.
“Starting in (fiscal year) 2022,” Doane said, “we’re projecting over a million-dollar deficit. We can either raise revenues, have a (general operating budget) override passed, or cut services.”
Select Board Chair Kevin Galligan reflected that, in years past, the town had chosen to use free cash, the amount of available funds left unexpended at the end of the fiscal year, to reduce the tax rate rather than go up to the maximum of its levy limit. That built in a sort of structural deficit year by year.
Galligan was buoyed by the large turnout of school leaders. “You guys all represent one of the greatest assets beyond our beaches and environment,” he told them. “Schools are the reason people buy and love to live here. We want to ensure that through all of this deliberative process, it’s one that focuses on maintaining quality of services and minimizes the impact to people. People are already working more than we have asked them to do, with COVID and what not.”
In addition to addressing short-term changes required by revenue shortfalls this summer at the special town meeting Oct. 26, Town Administrator John Kelly noted, officials need to review revenue and spending options for the fiscal year beginning next July, which will require a general operating override to permanently increase the tax levy limit. “We’re talking about fundamentally changing the way we fund programs and services, or reducing those programs and services to have expenses meet [revenue],” he said.
Select board member Mark Mathison offered his perspective as a longtime Nauset teacher and town leader both in Eastham and Orleans. When he was on Eastham’s finance committee in the 1970s, he recalled, school budgets were more than 50 percent of the operating budgets of the four towns. “Now we’re down in the 20s,” he said. “Even though we’re talking about a lot of money… there are a lot of things that are going on in town that drive up the cost of living here.”
Mathison called for a greater partnership between the town and Nauset, one that would take advantage of the side-by-side location of the middle school and the town’s library to share not only buildings but staff. “You can do the same thing perhaps with the recreation programs,” he said. In the past, “everyone has been so parochial… I don’t think we can afford that luxury anymore. Now we have the opportunity to truly be partners to provide services to people at a cost that’s appropriate and efficient and less than it would be on separate paths.”
That resonated with Conrad, who said he “came from a district in southern Maine where we were building a new facility years ago that was intergenerational. They had housing on the high school campus. These buildings are the community’s, and maximizing opportunities to blend programs together is essential.”
Talk of buildings prompted Nick Athanassiou, one of two members of the finance committee delegated to participate in the fiscal stability sessions, to bring up “the elephant in the room, the new high school.” With strides in online learning making “a huge difference in how we look at facilities and technology,” he said, “maybe we should be looking at whether the whole picture of the new project should be assessed. Maybe we need less space and more technology.”
Conrad said Nauset “had some success” with online learning this spring, “but we learned a great deal about things we could do better. We have spent a lot of time this summer on robust professional development. It’s more than likely we’ll see a hybrid model of how kids learn in September.” Based on a survey answered by 1,400 parents systemwide, he said, “there’s still a strong desire to get back into the physical building. We were surprised by the high percentage.”
Discussion of remote learning as the “new paradigm of education” concerned Chris Easley, who chairs the Nauset Regional School Committee. “The way to look at this is that we were forced into a situation where we did not have a choice. Experts say the best method of teaching children is by in-class participation. A ton of effort went out to do remote learning, but it is not sustainable by any stretch of the imagination as to in-school learning. That’s something we need to get back to.”
Easley said redoing the current renovation and expansion plan for the regional high school would not only result in a delay of many years but also sacrifice the planning and development time and money already expended. Add to that the $36 million of the total $132 million cost that the state has agreed to reimburse the member towns.
In addition to taking a hard look at expenses, the select board is open to ideas about boosting revenues, including fee increases. It took another step in that direction by asking the planning board to hold a public hearing on a proposed zoning amendment that would allow retail sale of marijuana, currently prohibited in town. During public comment July 22, Rick Francolini said that Provincetown, which receives 3 percent of gross sales revenues from the retail operation in that town, got a check for $52,000 representing just seven weeks of operation. Over the bridges in Wareham, he said, the town percentage is 6 percent, and after 15 months of operations, the community has received $1.75 million. Town meeting approval would be required for any change.