BEVERLY — Voters overwhelmingly rejected a $2.5 million tax increase in the city's first Proposition 21/2 override election yesterday, staging what the leader of the winning side said amounted to a "taxpayer revolt."
Voters turned down the override by a margin of more than 2,800 votes, 6,686 to 3,846. The "no" voters swept all 12 precincts in the city.
When the final results were tallied on a board at City Hall, a group of about a dozen "vote no" supporters exploded in applause.
"This is great," said Dawn Hames, a member of the anti-override group Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility. "As the children would say, 'Awesome.'"
Elliott Margolis, the leader of Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, said the large margin of victory "sent a message" to school and city officials about rising taxes and spending.
"It sends the message that they've had enough," Margolis said. "It's like a taxpayer revolt."
The result means the city will close McKeown School at the end of this month and spread the city's elementary school students among the five remaining schools for next year. There will also be teacher layoffs.
A citizens group called Yes! for Beverly had tried to persuade voters to pass the override in order to keep the school system as it is for at least another year and buy time to come up with other solutions to the school's budget problems.
More than 200 override supporters gathered last night at the Cove Community Center, which turned from festive to frustrated as the results came in. Although disappointed, they said they remained positive and proud of the work that went into the campaign.
"I know it doesn't feel like it right now, but we did make a difference," said Tracey Armstrong, one of the group's leaders. "We won before the votes were counted. This kind of a ballot never happened here before, and we gave people a voice, a chance to vote."
After an emotional two months of phone calls, T-shirts, signs and literature, parents and children broke down in tears throughout the room. They hugged and comforted one another and tried to stay positive.
McKeown School parent Joanna Scott said she's upset the school will close, but said override supporters fought a good fight and she was thankful for the friendships she formed with parents at other schools during the campaign.
"When we become part of another school, I know they will welcome us," she said. "But it's a shame that McKeown kids have no idea where they're going. They're adrift, and they know they're not a top priority."
Superintendent James Hayes, who was at the Cove Community Center, said he will forge ahead with a plan to close McKeown and redistrict kids across the city, while making other cuts to the budget.
"I'm very disappointed in the outcome, but very proud of the community coming together to rally for the schools," he said.
For many, the results weren't so much a surprise as they were disheartening.
"We honestly had no idea, but we were a lot more optimistic." said Hannah School parent Andi Freedman.
Education is the foundation of a community, Centerville parent Amy McCay said.
"I feel sad people think about their own pocket before the greater good," she said. "They can't see the big picture."
But the 'vote no' side said residents had no appetite for a tax increase that would have permanently cost the owner of an average-price home in the city $187 per year.
"I think (the override defeat) is very fair for the people who truly can't afford this," said Hames, who has two children at Centerville Elementary School. "I can't call for a 21/2 override to my mortgage company. We have to meet our obligations, and I want our government to meet theirs."
About 43 percent of the city's registered voters went to the polls, the highest turnout for an election in the city since the 2004 presidential primary. The 'no' vote won by a margin of 63 percent to 37 percent.
"In my wildest dreams, I wanted to win every precinct and by a 2-1 margin," Margolis said. "Did I think that was reality? Probably not. To be honest, I didn't know how it was going to go. It's people power."
Margolis praised the efforts of the "vote yes" group and said the campaign has energized many people in the city to become more involved in civic issues.
"They put up a helluva fight," he said. "They did a great job."
Beverly would have been one of the few Massachusetts cities to pass a Proposition 21/2 override. Hundreds of towns have passed overrides, including most recently in Ipswich, Hamilton and Wenham, but they are more difficult to achieve among larger populations.
"It's hard to get out there and make the case to every single voter," said John Robertson of the Massachusetts Municipal Association. "You have to go out there and reach individual voters to make the case and build credibility with voters. In small towns, that's easier to do."