Back in time to May 12, 1983

In 2023, the school budget generated little debate on the floor of Town Meeting, and the School Committee repeatedly earned praise from the Finance Committee for the transparency of its budget process throughout the year. But, 40 years ago this week, the two committees sparred after the School Committee charged the FinCom chair with spearheading “an unjust and misleading attack against them and the superintendent of schools,” The Daily Evening Item reported.

James Hourihan made the alleged attack on the floor of Town Meeting during a “heated debate” on the school budget, which had been slashed by $370,000. The School Committee attempted to lobby voters to restore the budget to its original sum of $8.7 million, but town voters opted to add only $130,000 back.

“I was completely shocked at the attack launched at Town Meeting by Mr. Hourihan, who, if I heard right, said that we had presented incorrect figures in our budget,” School Committee member Marcia Sweeney is quoted as saying. “I would never sit on a committee that requested funds that we didn’t really need. I, and my colleagues, believe that the attack was unwarranted and we feel we deserve an apology from Mr. Hourihan.”

Sweeney went further, saying parts of Hourihan’s speech about the low tuition fees charged to METCO students as compared to other out-of-district students contained “racial slurs.”

During his remarks, Hourihan asked voters how long Marblehead would be asked to support the Boston school system. But, Sweeney noted, METCO tuition fees are set by the state, not the committee.

Hourihan went on to say that the School Committee was obligated to “tell it like it is,” and had not cooperated with his committee and its spending limit. He said doing so was akin to “willful belligerence that at times bordered on paranoia.” Hourihan went further, telling voters that restoring the $370,000 to the budget would “amount to granting permission for [the School Committee] to continue in an educational wonderland… of bull-headedness and fiscal insanity.”

He defended his statement to The Item, noting it was written and approved by the committee and represented its official stance on the issue.

“It’s a case of we won and they lost,” Hourihan said. “If it had been the opposite, the entire debate would have been immediately forgotten.”

“It’s making a mountain out of a mole hill,” he continued.

Sweeney said she and other members of the committee would individually review the transcript of Hourihan’s speech, and reiterated she would be expecting an apology.

Despite the brouhaha, Hourihan was unanimously reelected to another three-year term on the committee by the Board of Selectmen. Selectmen expressed concerns about the remarks during their discussion, with Chairman Thomas McNulty saying he received calls complaining about the allegedly racist remarks made about METCO students.

JoAnne Mayer, then a newly-elected member, called the embattled FinCom chairman’s remarks “unfortunate” and said she believed the boards involved in the spat “lost a lot of credibility.”

Selectman Arnold Alexander, though, noted the FinCom’s approval of the statement and said he couldn’t see a way in which Hourihan’s remarks were racist. He moved to reappoint Hourihan to the FinCom, and got a quick second from William Conly.

John Whipple, however, sought to table the motion, expressing concern about whether or not the FinCom had correctly interpreted the facts presented to Town Meeting as it considered the school spending proposal.

“If they play with figures to sway voters, then this, too, is an issue,” Whipple is quoted as saying.

Only Mayer voted with Whipple to table the appointment.

While the Selectmen ultimately reappointed Hourihan, they held up the reappointment of two other members — Jay Michaud and Janice Flanagan, opting to wait on a request for attendance records and a recommendation from Hourihan.