Marblehead overrides the override at town election

MARBLEHEAD — After months of debate and conversation, the saga of the nearly $2.5 million town override came to a conclusion Tuesday night as voters rejected Question 1 on the town-election ballot by a margin of 3,399 to 2,992.

Question 1, the lone question on this year’s ballot, asked voters if the Town of Marblehead could assess $2,472,056.00 in real-estate and property taxes toward Marblehead’s general government operating budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which will begin July 1. As a result of its failure, Marblehead will use a reduced-services budget for fiscal year 2024.

The override would have increased the average property tax for single-family homes by $322.10, with a median increase of $252.38, which Town Administrator Thatcher Kezer revealed in March. 

The vote came slightly more than a month after the article containing the override passed on the second night of Town Meeting on May 9. Article 31, which aimed to put Question 1 on the town-election ballot, passed Town Meeting with a 534-230 vote. 

The failure of the override will hit Marblehead Public Schools particularly hard, as the override included the school district’s budget. In a public budget hearing in March, Superintendent John Buckey said that if the override failed, 33 Marblehead Public Schools positions would be cut in the reduced-services budget. With its rejection, those positions will be cut, including freshman coaches, special-education instructors, librarians, and world-language teachers. 

“Yesterday’s vote is deeply disappointing and will have a significant impact on the students, families, and staff in our school district,” Buckey said in a statement via email. “Without these resources, we have no choice but to make the very difficult reductions we have outlined.” 

At a public budget hearing in March, Buckey provided the reduced-services budget in the event that the override failed. The School Committee made close to $5 million in cuts for FY24 in order to provide a balanced budget. 

At Marblehead High School, freshman sports and paraprofessional positions will be axed. 

The Village School will see the physical-education and music-teacher positions vacated with two teachers retiring this year. Veterans Middle School will also lose its librarian and a world-language position that will cut Latin class.

As a result of these cuts, class sizes will increase and, supervision of students and optimized education will therefore decrease. 

This marks the second year in a row that an override has cleared Town Meeting, only to be rejected by voters at the ballot box. Last year, an override for the school district’s budget failed at the polls. When asked why that might be the case, Town Administrator Thatcher Kezer said that he looks at each year individually.

“I look at each budget year as a separate decision,” he said. “There are many other variables that affect a budget, the amount of state aid as an example. So each year, the needs for additional local funding will even flow depending on many other factors impacting revenues.”

Kezer said that the town put together a workable budget for FY24 that accounted for the override not passing, though it “will be tight on the town side,” and will cause layoffs in the school district. 

He also warned that the longer an override is put off, the more difficult it will become for the town financially.

“The challenge for the following year is that the structural deficit will just grow even larger,” said Kezer. “The sooner you can address a structural deficit, the less it will cost.” 

He added that for the upcoming fiscal year, residents won’t notice a significant difference on the municipal side, however, FY25 will be a bigger challenge as a result of the rejected override. 

“It puts us closer to the margin of trouble,” he said.

Thatcher gave an example of how if a police officer or firefighter is off duty or injured, the town will not have additional staffing, forcing them to use more overtime coverage. 

Select Board Chair Moses Grader, who won reelection to the board Tuesday, said that he had supported the override, but is looking forward to working with the schools and the town to continue to get to a zero-based budget.

“I look forward to continuing to work with the schools on a technology platform, with the ClearGov platform with the aligning of the trial balance of the town, and moving towards zero-based budgeting, which is something I think we really have to do,” Grader said. 

Buckey acknowledged that the district has no choice but to respect the voters’ decision, but said that the override was an important step in ensuring top-notch education for Marblehead students.

“We must respect the will of the voters, and therefore we will do what is necessary, but we move forward knowing we have missed a critical opportunity to make the appropriate investment in a first-rate education for the students of the Marblehead Public Schools,” Buckey said.