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Hopkinton town, school budgets likely to go mostly unchanged

A crowd of some two dozen Hopkinton residents turned out last night for the first of possibly two hearings on their town and school district’s annual budgets, which officials said remain mostly unchanged from last year except for a few costly aberrations, including funding for a new highway garage, retirement and special education costs and a new contract with the school district’s support staff.

Despite the new costs, there were no voiced objections to anything presented. Only one audience member had questions, and they were for brief clarifications.

The town budget is roughly $1.6 million higher in expenditures than last year’s, but the bulk of that increase is the cost it will take to replace the highway garage that burned last June and will be offset by $769,434 coming from a settlement recently reached with the building’s insurer, the Local Government Center. Selectman Tom Congoran said that, given an increase in projected revenue, residents should not see a rise in their annual tax rate.

The school budget is about $460,000 higher than last year’s and will add 97 cents in taxes per $1,000 in assessed property value – equivalent to last year’s increase. The majority of additional expenses comes from $268,930 in new pension payments in response to the state cutting its share of the payments and $186,000 in special education funding to enroll students with specific learning disabilities in specialized out-of-district programs.

School board and district budget chairman David Luneau noted that since December, his committee has siphoned off roughly $280,000 from the original budget proposal.

In addition to the district’s proposed budget, residents will also be asked in March to approve a renegotiated three-year contract with the district’s support staff, which includes office, food service, student and library employees. The new contracts offer slight wage increases to make rates more regionally competitive and a new cost-saving “longevity” rubric that rewards employees who work in the district for at least 10 years with small bonuses every five years, rather than annually, as is current practice, Luneau said. The total cost increases for the contracts will be about $68,000 in the first year, $66,000 in the second and $48,000 in the third.

“The savings to the district over the long-run – even in the medium-run – is going to be quite significant,” Luneau said. The tax increase for the contracts is part of the 97-cent estimate, he said.

Following the meeting, Luneau said he wasn’t entirely surprised by the size of the crowd, or the lack of questions or comments from it. “Usually a few more people come to this, but I’m sure there will be lots of questions that come up as people read over the budget,” he said. “We’re certainly prepared to answer to the community.”

District Superintendent Steven Chamberlin said he thought the lack of audience commentary reflected his and the board’s openness to hearing and responding to the public. “I think the amount of transparency and information that we’ve made available has really helped,” he said. “Whenever anyone has a concern, we respond and offer to meet with them individually. We’re always accessible.” He said he has received a few emails in recent weeks regarding the budget.

A second budget hearing could be held Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. to allow for any additions to current warrant articles. Hopkinton's school district meeting is scheduled for March 9; town meeting is March 16. Town election day is March 12.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319 or jblackman@cmonitor.com)

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