SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

April 3, 2014

Projected Essex Tech bills stir concerns

'Staggering increases' in assessments worry local mayors, town manager

BY ETHAN FORMAN
STAFF WRITER

---- — DANVERS — Local municipal leaders are seeing red over large increases in preliminary assessments for the school budget for the new regional Essex Technical High School.

The school, a merger of North Shore Tech, Essex Agricultural and Technical High, and Peabody’s high-school vocational programs is under construction and set to open this coming school year.

Preliminary numbers show drastic increases in assessments for local cities and towns. Salem could see an almost $1 million, or 45 percent, increase in its proposed Essex Tech assessment, Mayor Kim Driscoll said.

“I am very concerned about these early numbers,” said Driscoll, who was to meet with the region’s mayors and the Danvers town manager today at North Shore Community College. Officials plan to meet with Essex Tech Superintendent Dan O’Connell and the school’s business manager, Marie Znamierowkski, before a North Shore Coalition meeting, Town Manager Wayne Marquis said.

Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt said his city’s $3.8 million assessment appears to be based on 51 more students than actually plan to enroll. He said the city should pay for the number of students who actually attend.

“We assumed the budget would be corrected for the 160 number, not the 211,” he said, referring to enrollment projections.

Bettencourt has met with state Rep. Ted Speliotis, D-Danvers, state Rep. Leah Cole, R-Peabody, and state Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, and is confident lawmakers will come up with a fix.

“Those numbers, we do have issues with those numbers,” said Speliotis, whose district includes a portion of Peabody. The concern for Peabody would be a corresponding loss of state aid if the assessment remains the same.

“It’s a big hit for Peabody if it was to stay that way,” Speliotis said.

Danvers’ assessment has increased from nearly $1.7 million to $2.3 million, Marquis said, but he said that those numbers could change.

“None of us can afford increases in the range of 30 to 40 percent,” said Marquis, who said officials are working to make sure the regional school merger is both affordable and that it opens on time.

Lovely said yesterday that the numbers on the assessments from the state are fluid.

“That’s what we are working on with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education,” she said. “We are working with them to pinpoint what those numbers are.” Conversations are also going on with the House Committee on Ways and Means.

“We can’t talk specifics, because we don’t have those specific numbers right now,” Lovely said.

O’Connell, who is working with lawmakers to provide relief to North Shore communities, said problems with the way the state calculated assessments have led to these concerns.

For example, the assessments failed to account for a number of students who attend Essex Aggie who live within the 17-community Essex Tech district, he said.

“We are getting it resolved as we speak,” O’Connell said on Tuesday.

Driscoll, for one, would like to know why the school’s per pupil cost for Salem has increased from $15,000 to $18,000.

Salem’s assessment for North Shore Tech and the charge for Essex Aggie two years ago was a combined $1.84 million, Driscoll said.

Last year, with 141 students at both schools, the city’s total was $2.14 million, a $300,000, 16 percent increase from the year before.

In the coming year, Salem’s preliminary assessment is $3.1 million, a 45 percent, $973,000 increase. This assessment takes into account a sizable increase in the number of students enrolled, from 141 to 175. It does not include increased debt service on the construction project.

While officials were expecting increases, “these numbers are staggering increases,” Driscoll said.

“The hard part is we all want the new tech to be successful,” said Driscoll, but the new school can’t take away from Salem’s education or public safety, she said.

O’Connell said new assessments will take into account corrected enrollments.

Figuring out the assessments is complicated because the school has yet to open, Speliotis said. Part of the problem is that local aid is based on Oct. 1 enrollments, he said, so calculations are being redone using April 1 numbers.

Speliotis said fixing the numbers within the budget may mean a line item rather than a simple fix to Chapter 70 figures because the problem is not confined to Peabody.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to adjust it and reflect the actual dollars the communities will be entitled to,” Speliotis said.

Wenham Town Administrator Mark Andrews said the warrant for this Saturday’s Annual Town Meeting has already been printed, with the assessment for Essex Tech at $144,688. That’s $20,000 more than this fiscal year’s assessment.

Andrews has been told the assessment for Wenham could be as high as $202,461. If the number stays this way, the town would have to deal with this higher number through a Special Town Meeting in the fall.

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at eforman@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.