On May 12, Williamstown will vote on the Proposition 2 1/2 override, which would raise property taxes and thereby increase funding for town services and education.
15 years ago, Proposition 2 1/2 was passed to maintain property tax increases at 2.5 percent per year and prohibit growth in the tax base. With inflation rising between 7 and 8 percent each year and costs at a rate that exceeds 2.5 percent, the town can no longer make up the difference with their reserve funds. Minimal financial government intervention forces the town to fend for itself, turning to its community, and the college, for help.
Supporters of the override emphasize that a funding increase will maintain the quality of education and avoid spending cuts in the Williamstown Public Schools. At the elementary school level, two or three teaching positions and several paraprofessional positions will be cut, busing reduced, specialists in areas such as music, art or physical education reduced or even eliminated, and field trip fees required.
Mt. Greylock Regional High School (supported by Williamstown since 1961) would face similar sacrifices: despite the state-approved technology plan to integrate computers into education, neither computer workstations nor their accompanying equipment could be purchased; the athletic budget would be slashed by 25 percent, either cutting eight sports or imposing a $100 user fee per athlete; 2.7 FTE faculty would be cut, creating large class sizes; and the health program and other electives would be dropped. Not to mention that the school would reduce instructional supplies, professional development funds, co-curricular activity funds, and maintenance staff.
To prevent these cuts, a number of influential groups, specifically the Board of Selectmen, the Finance Committee, the Williamstown Elementary School Committee, the Mount Greylock Regional High School Committee, and the Chamber of Commerce (35 of 42 members) are supporting the override.
Political Science Professor Sam Crane, a member of the Williamstown Elementary School Committee, explained why the school requested a 3.7 percent increase from Town appropriations for FiscalYear 1999: “Reduced state spending means that local property taxes support a greater share of elementary education and if the property tax rate is not increased by a modest amount, then our educational programs must be reduced.” Special education costs are also skyrocketing due to “larger-scale social and medical changes” that give more of these children a chance to attend public school. While both state and federal law mandates that all public schools provide services for even the most severely disabled children, state funding is grossly insufficient. Crane disagrees with the “bureaucratic formula that the state uses to determine what our demand for special education should be, a formula that has no connection to the real needs of our community.” The other groups, too, blame the town’s financial situation in part on a lack of government spending.
The condition of local schools has far-reaching implications. Williamstown resident Ken Stanley, who is heading the community’s effort to pass the override, commented, “As soon as a community allows its schools to deteriorate, a vicious spiral ensues, resulting in a rapid decline in the quality of life in the town. Property values drop. The ability to attract and retain new businesses such as Tripod drops. The result is a smaller property tax base and either higher property tax rates or further spending cuts.”
Crane suggested, “All Williams students who are interested in maintaining the Williamstown community and who support public education should register and vote in favor of the override.”
Chaplain and Coordinator of Community Service Bob Buckwalter urges that “students should be concerned about the quality of education where they are living,” especially given that over 100 Williams students volunteer at the local schools. College-instituted programs include America Reads, Adventures in Learning, the Writing Workshop, science and computer programs, Outdoor Outreach, and Big Sibs, to name a few. Still others get involved through coaching youth sports teams, working at the Williams College Children’s Center, or being part of the baby-sitting service. As Stanley said, “For these students, the kids that will be hurt are not faceless statistics.” Since students are already involved with local children, Buckwalter suggests that supporting the override is the next logical step.
Buckwalter is also “interested in the equality of education,” noting that children of faculty would find ways to supplement their education if programs were cut, while children of less privileged families would suffer.
Bob Alcala ’98, part of a student group on campus promoting voter registration, added, “A good local public school system is an essential part of attracting and keeping the excellent faculty we have at Williams, since many of their children attend the public schools. Hence the quality of education at Williams College depends, in part, on the quality of Williamstown’s public schools.” For Stanley, the students should get involved simply “because you know the importance of a good education.”
While the college is exempt from property taxes, its contributions to the community have secured its role in local politics. Alcala remarked, “Weâ€”students, faculty, and staffâ€”are the college community. As part of a community that forms a substantial part of the tax base of the town, it is very appropriate that we have a say in this election.”
Past overrides have failed twice (last year by six votes), meaning student votes could be the deciding factor. Alcala’s organization facilitates student voter registration for the Apr. 22 deadline by running a table in Baxter all this week from 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Students may also contact either Alcala or Reverend Buckwalter for a registration form.
Supporters of the override are optimistic, with Buckwalter noting that they “are organized better than ever before.” Even though the “standard wisdom” is that the town will never pass a Proposition 2 1/2 override, Stanley is “confident that if everyone in town votes, the override will pass easily.” The children, whose immediate future is most at stake, are also hopeful. Williamstown Elementary sixth grader Gideon Bradburd offers some final words of encouragement: “So don your armor, knight protector, and save us from the nightmare of ignorance by pointing your pencil/sword to the override column on May 12.”