BY ETHAN FORMAN
---- — DANVERS — Town Meeting last night quelled a mini revolt over the school budget and rejected the idea of Saturday voting for the annual town election.
There was much debate over a minority report from two dissenting Finance Committee members, Michael Daley and John Mroszczyk, who sought to trim the school budget down from a 3.19 percent increase to a 2.5 percent increase, which worked out to about $215,000 from the $34.4 million budget request.
It was an unusual move to debate the school budget on the floor of Town Meeting, but proponents said it was meant to send a message to the School Department that it has to live within its means. Comparatively, the general government budget received a 2.2 percent increase this year, said Daley’s wife, Precinct 3 Town Meeting member Andrea Daley.
Andrea Daley said the school district’s enrollment has flat-lined over the past several years, but costs keep going up. She said the opening of the new regional vocational school now under construction along Route 62 and the middle school program being planned at St. John’s Prep in Danvers could further divert students from the school system.
She also asked how many total staff members would be added in the district’s request for an equivalent of seven full-time positions, which equates to an increase in salaries of $551,000. Daley’s point was that these people “are not part of the present contract.”
School Committee Chairman Eric Crane read a list of new positions, including a therapeutic teacher, world language teacher at the high school, and social studies and science teachers at the middle school, to name a few.
“The list of folks I mentioned here are delivering direct services to students,” Crane said. Later, school officials clarified that there would be nine staff added, including a curriculum director and the director of the Danvers Cares youth risk behavior prevention coalition.
Former Selectman and Precinct 7 Town Meeting member Mark Zuberek said the town spends much more on the schools once building maintenance and other costs are factored in.
“This proposed reduction is only a down payment on what has to happen,” Zuberek said, saying the schools have to live within their means because “taxpayers cannot keep reaching into their pockets every year.”
Former nine-year School Committee member Bill Bates, who works as an aide to state Rep. Ted Speliotis, defended the school budget request.
“Your School Committee does not need to be reminded there is no bottomless pit,” Bates said.
Bates said any school budget cuts on Town Meeting floor could jeopardize contractual agreements. He said the new positions include some, such as the middle school teachers, that have been trimmed in recent years.
School Committee member Arthur Skarmeas said the school budget process “is collaborative with the town,” and noted that no one spoke against the budget during three hearings on it. The minority report failed to pass.
Precinct 4 Town Meeting member John Zavaglia tried to persuade members to go along with Saturday voting for the town election by proposing to change his article so that voting on the first Saturday of May would be from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. He had proposed an 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. voting time in his original motion. It then came to light that the only way to change the date of the election is to change the Town Manager Act and have a vote of the Legislature with a home rule petition, a process that could take a year.
While some people rose in favor of Saturday voting as being more convenient, others said the change would cause confusion. Bill Nicholson, a poll worker, rose twice to defend Tuesday voting.
“Why change something if it’s already working quite well?” he asked, adding that it’s the issues, not the day on which an election is held, that drive turnout for town elections.
In fixing the town’s taxicab bylaw, Town Meeting conceded a point from one of its newest and youngest members, Precinct 3 member Alex Swift, and his father, Precinct 3 member Ralph Swift. They said the town’s taxicab bylaws should not explicitly state cabs can refuse to pick up a person who is drunk, on the theory that the person has called a taxi because they are too drunk to drive.
“The purpose of the amendment is safety,” Alex Swift said. Town Meeting members agreed and amended the bylaw.
The 136 members present also passed a one-year moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries with no discussion except for a minor wording change.
Last night’s Town Meeting was the first at the high school auditorium since 2006.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.