Colleagues disappointed as Evan Kenney dissents in 6-1 vote
By MARK SARDELLA
WAKEFIELD — The Wakefield School Committee last night voted to bring to Annual Town Meeting a $34,787,085 FY 2016 School Department budget, including a $3,558,357 (11.4 percent) increase over the current year’s budget.
But the vote was not unanimous, a fact that did not sit well with several School Committee members. Evan Kenney was the lone dissenting vote on the budget, which prompted committee member Thomas Markham to remark, “Perhaps you are on the wrong board, Mr. Kenney.”
Voting in favor of the budget were Markham, Greg Liakos, Ann Danehy, Kate Morgan, Janine Cook and Chairman Christopher Callanan.
Kenney said that voting against the budget was the most difficult decision he’s had to make on the School Committee. He acknowledged that there were a lot of positive things funded with the 11.4 percent increase and he agreed that given the underfunding of the school budget over the years the increase was not an extravagant amount. But he felt that the large increase was too much to ask of the taxpayers in one year.
Kenney argued that in a budget that for the first time includes the cost of full-day kindergarten, some of the other things funded in the budget increase could wait.
“I’m not comfortable asking for new hires when we are already asking so much from our taxpayers,” Kenney said. He attributed some of the impetus for the large increase on the town’s lack of a fair share of Chapter 70 state funding.
“I’ll be voting ‘no’ on the budget,” Kenney said. “I think it’s a little bit much to ask of our taxpayers in one year.”
Committee member Janine Cook said, “Chapter 70 is what it is. We have been underfunded for years. It’s time we step up to the plate.”
Markham acknowledged that the 11.4 percent increase was “a large ask.” But he argued that it “made up for years of decline, level funding and cuts.” He noted that the budget was within Proposition 2½ limits and addressed long unfilled needs by investing in areas like technology, special education and the teaching staff.
Markham said that he was disappointed by Kenney’s comments and called blaming Chapter 70 funding “almost an excuse for why we should expect less.” He asked Kenney if he was was prepared to propose specific cuts to the budget.
“I’m disappointed that we are not a united committee,” Markham said.
Kenney reiterated that he was “uncomfortable asking for new hires when we are asking for so much. It’s important that we not ask for more than we absolutely need this year.”
Kenney noted that just because the budget is within Proposition 2½ didn’t mean it was not a cost to the taxpayers. Responding to Cook’s comments, Kenney said, “Local taxpayers have been stepping up for a very long time. Our taxpayers have been stepping up disproportionally.” He noted that it was especially true this year, the first year when the cost of the new Galvin Middle School impacted tax bills.
Committee member Greg Liakos observed Kenney’s principal objection, the added new positions, amounted to only 1 percent of the increase. He also suggested that Kenney had characterized the new Galvin Middle School as a burden on taxpayers.
“I wouldn’t characterize it as a burden,” Liakos said. “I would characterize it as an investment in our town’s future.”
Kenney said that the given the size of the budget increase combined with the Galvin cost appearing on tax bills, he felt that that some elements included in the increase could be achieved incrementally over a period of years.
He stressed that his objections were “not on the merits of the request but the timing.”
Committee member Anne Danehy said that she fully supported the budget. She asked Kenney if he favored increasing class sizes at the Galvin, which she said would occur if new teachers were not hired. Danehy said that she “would have preferred to have had this discussion at the budget workshop, rather than tonight.” She maintained that the committee was “being fiscally prudent” while advocating for educational needs.
“We are advocates for teaching and learning,” Markham said. “Perhaps you are on the wrong board, Mr. Kenney.”
In an e-mail to the Item reporter after the meeting, Kenney reacted to Markham’s comment, calling it “disappointing” and “inappropriate.”
“What is particularly concerning is his suggestion that it is not my role as a School Committee member to consider the impact that school spending has on Wakefield taxpayers,” Kenney said. “We control the majority of municipal spending, so I think it is irresponsible to talk about the budget without discussing the impact that it could have on tax bills. I am open to disagreement on that logic but personal attacks have no place in that conversation.”
In other business last night, the School Committee:
• Set Thursday, June 25 as the last day of school (1/2 day). June 24 will also be a half-day for students with the remainder to be professional development time for staff. The last day for school staff will be June 26.
• Approved the job description of a district-wide math coach position to support all K-4 staff with the implementation of rigorous math curriculum aligned to the Massachusetts State Frameworks.
• Approved a Town Meeting warrant article to request a sum estimated to be in the range of $150,000 from the Special Education Stabilization Account to cover extraordinary expenses associated with out-of-district tuition and transportation costs.
• Accepted with gratitude a $6,500 donation from the Garrant Foundation, which will allow 296 sixth grade students to participate in the “Enterprise City” program, which teaches students first-hand how basic economic concepts are used in the real world.
• Approved an out of state field trip for Galvin grade 6 students to Enterprise City, Dover, N.H. on June 17, 18 and 19.