RICHMOND — Members of the Town Council unanimously passed a resolution Tuesday supporting the 2014-15 Chariho School District budget, and strongly urged voters to do the same.
Council Vice President Henry Oppenheimer warned that if voters reject the $55 million spending plan, the financial consequences will be dire.
“The budget would go up by over $500,000, and our share of that would probably be about $190,000, and that, quite frankly, is about one third of our ability to raise the taxes. We can only probably raise taxes a little over $600,000, and I don’t want to do that. We’re already going to have to raise them, because our share has gone up, and our state aid has gone down,” he said. (Oppenheimer’s reference to $500,000 relates to a default increase that takes effect if the current budget is rolled over following defeat in a referendum.)
Richmond’s share of the proposed Chariho budget would increase by $78,745 to $18.4 million, the result of its student enrollment increasing by five. Property taxes are expected to increase slightly, from a rate of $19.72 per $1,000 valuation to $19.75.
Richmond has drafted two bills proposing to amend the Chariho Act, both of which have been introduced in the House of Representatives by Democratic Rep. Larry Valencia, whose district includes Richmond and Hopkinton. One bill seeks to reduce the Chariho School Committee from 11 members to 9. The second would eliminate the matriculation requirement that students attend schools in the towns where they live.
Councilor Erick Davis, who has spearheaded the town’s effort to engage the two other Chariho towns in discussions relating to possible changes to the Chariho Act, said he wanted to clear up misconceptions about Richmond’s motives for drafting the two bills. Critics of the legislation in Hopkinton have suggested that Richmond wants to make the changes to accommodate the potential influx of students from the Richmond Commons development, and that the town was seeking a majority on the School Committee.
“None of this had anything to do with Richmond Commons,” Davis said. “It had to do with stuff related to the census, where we looked at what the numbers were and the distribution of the populations of the towns, and it had to do with the matriculation concept of having kids that live within walking distance of schools and having to be bused into the Richmond School versus going to the one closest to their house.”
However, the Chariho Act does not specifically prohibit the School Committee from determining which schools students will attend, and that puts into question the necessity of introducing the matriculation legislation. Davis said that at the very least, the legislation would improve the Chariho Act by providing some much-needed clarification, which in turn would prevent future conflicts between the member towns.
“The Chariho Act is interpreted in two different ways from that standpoint. One school of thought is that where you go to elementary school is based on your residence versus proximity to a school, and yet it doesn’t clearly state that in the Chariho Act. There’s another interpretation that says the School Committee can set the policy now, because the Chariho Act is so vague,” he said.
Councilors agreed to consult with the other towns and the School Committee and introduce an amended matriculation bill if necessary.
They also agreed to support a change to the Chariho Act proposed by School Committee member Stephen M. Huzyk of Charlestown that would allow people to vote in the budget referendum by absentee ballot. Several councilors argued that since the school district represented such a large portion of residents’ taxes, not providing them with every opportunity to vote amounted to disenfranchisement.
Councilor Paul Michaud said the town should get a legal opinion on whether residents who could not cast their ballots in person were in effect being denied the right to vote.
“We need to get a legal opinion on that and find out whether or not the Chariho Act is indeed violating people’s right to vote simply because they have to be present to vote and they can’t do it by absentee ballot,” he said.
Council President B. Joseph Reddish said, “If we get more people participating, I think that’s what we want to do.”
But resident and Planning Board member Charles More said he was concerned about the potential of voter fraud with absentee ballots, which do not require voter identification. “That’s my problem with absentee ballots. This is how your fraud is getting around the voter identification law, by using absentee ballots to stuff the ballot box,” he said.
Reddish asked Town Solicitor Karen Ellsworth whether a voter identification provision could be attached to the change in the Chariho Act that would allow absentee ballots.
“If we were to put the change in the Chariho Act that the voting process be that valid ID need to be provided showing that they’re a registered voter?” he asked.
“You could put that in the act,” Ellsworth said.
Davis said he hoped the towns and the School Committee would work out the details of the absentee ballot amendment.
“You can hammer out those details and find a way to make that happen,” he said. “This is a fledgling idea. It needs a lot of legwork. It’s going to need time, subcommittees, thought, research, but it’s something that makes a lot of sense, and if it’s done correctly, it really is going to give people a better say in what happens with their taxes and their budget, and we can tighten up the voter ID concept as well, maybe provide an example to the rest of the state.”
The Chariho budget referendum is on April 8.