Sudbury, 1890-1989, 100 years in the Life of a Town (Chapter 23)

Published April 9, 2001 | Informational - Historic Articles | Automatically Archived on 6/3/2001

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Chapter 23

“We’ll Sue The Town!”

The preface of the 1963 Finance Committee report was the ultimate in understatement. “Sudbury has begun to feel the impact of its rapid growth…,” it said in part.

A year later, the Fincom was ready to do something about that “impact.” It had developed a plan to spread the cost of schools and other Town services over a seven-to-ten-year period in order to limit tax increases to an affordable $10 a year.

In terms of “pocketbook reality,” the committee reported, a $10 increase would mean an additional year-end tax payment of approximately $75 and a continuing $6.25 monthly increase for the average taxpayer. The average residential assessment in 1964 was approximately $7,500, with roughly 70 percent of all residential properties in town falling within the $5,000 to $9,000 range. Sudbury was already spending $585 a year per elementary school pupil and $850 per high school student. The national average was $435 and $566.

The rumblings about possible school budget cutbacks on the Town Meeting floor had been going on all winter and two Fincom members, Daniel P. Jameson and George F. Miller, had resigned. As the March 4th Annual Town Meeting drew nearer and nearer, it became clear that what was at stake was $16,700 and a matter of principle.

The basic facts in the case were these: since a large area of Sudbury was owned by the federal government, Sudbury received federal school aid to make up for property tax dollars lost. The School Committee had been using some of this money as a contingency fund. When the FinCom discovered this fact, it cut the school budget by $16,700, claiming that all federal funds had to be spent in the year that they were granted.

There was more at stake for the School Committee than just the money. Under Chapter 71, Section 34 of the General Laws of Massachusetts, the Town was obligated to supply “an amount of money sufficient for the support of the public schools as required by this Chapter.” In other words, what the School Committee wanted, the School Committee got. The law even provided a 25 percent penalty in the event that the Committee had to take the Town to Court.

In this case, what the School Committee wanted was $16,700. If they didn’t get it, they said, two elementary school teachers and two specialists would not be hired.

The atmosphere at Town Meeting was tense. After much discussion, the budget was passed with the cut intact. The following session, a motion for reconsideration of the budget was lost, 412-190. School Committee Chairman Lawrence “Bert” Tighe immediately announced that the School Committee had voted unanimously to take the Town to court.

The announcement created an uproar. It was clear that the majority of the voters wanted fiscal control and the final word. “The educational process is not a blank check,” said Fincom Chairman George MacKenzie. “The School Committee will endanger the whole school system we have already spent so much to protect.

But the supporters of the school system and education in Sudbury were adamant. Nineteen taxpayers signed on as plaintiffs and the Massachusetts Teachers Association hired attorney William O’Keefe to prosecute the suit.

O’Keefe met with 75 taxpayers and declared the suit an open-and-shut case. He explained that the School Committee budget is untouchable by any local forces such as the Finance Committee. He elaborated that courts interfere with School Committee decisions only when the committee assumes power it has never been granted, or in cases of dishonesty. “The courts have ruled that the place to correct mistakes is the ballot box, not the courts,
he said. Shortly thereafter, the School Committee announced it would hire teachers as if the $16,700 shortfall had been voted.

Attorney Henry W. Hardy signed on to defend the Town, but held out little hope. Unless the Town could come up with something “different and substantial,” he said, he would just be going through the motions.

As Spring turned into summer, the issue divided the town. Selectman Chairman Ed Kreitsek announced he would absent himself completely from all aspects of the Town’s defense. “I have stated publicly that I think that Town Meeting acted improperly and I am intellectually and in conscience convinced that for the preservation of orderly government the taxpayers’ petition should be favorably acted upon by the court,” he said.

On the other side of the fence, Moderator John Powers thundered: “It is the principal responsibility of elected officials to heed the will of the majority.” His remarks drew fire from opponents and neutrals alike.

One of the first casualties was Superintendent of Schools C. Newton Heath, who resigned effective the end of the school year. “It is with deep regret that I am forced to accept the fact that the contradictory pressures brought to bear upon the administration by citizen minority groups and segmented school committee actions makes it impossible for me to maintain a stable and sound school system and to meet the problems of budget preparation, staff needs, curriculum development, districting and staff morale,” said Heath. He was replaced by Calvin E. Eels, formerly the Director of Curriculum for the Portland, Maine, schools, but retained his post as Superintendent of Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School.

Perhaps a letter to the editor of the Sudbury Citizen put it best. Entitled “Hard Times,” it noted that $19,000 had been lopped from the Park and Recreation budget, and pointed out that the Town had no swimming facility or tennis court despite the fact that, for a third of the year, the kids weren’t in school.

In the action on the school budget, the Town was saying in essence–hard times are upon us,” the letter went on. “We must economize and make do with less than the best, for we just cannot afford the best.

“If the School Committee and those who want good schools do not heed this fair warning, if they cannot grasp this simple statement of fact, then the people of Sudbury will have no choice but to elect the ‘economy firsters’ to the School Committee, then see what happens to our schools!

Early that June the Town answered the petition of the group of 19 in the school suit and pulled a rabbit out of a hat. The Town’s position, as filed by Special Counsel Hardy, would be based on two points: first, consistently rising per-pupil costs in the Sudbury school system were not justified by rising costs or the town’s requirements for schools, and, unless checked, would place an intolerable burden on the taxpayers; and, secondly: “The School Committee is obligated to use federal aid for the relief of the tax burden, not as a contingency fund,” he announced. “The School Committee has more than $20,000 in Federal funds that could be applied toward the alleged $16,700 deficit.

Hardy explained that Public Law 874, provides federal aid money for local schools because of tax revenue lost when federal property is located within the town. This money, given as a relief to the tax burden, is not a contingency fund to be used at the School Committee’s discretion. Even though $48,000 was applied to the budget, an additional $20,142.42 remained in the fund. More than enough, he emphasized, to cover the deficit.

The local educational authority, in this case the School Committee, is responsible for counting the children and applying for the federal aid. Children of federal employees must amount to at least three percent of the school’s population in order for the town to qualify for federal aid.

The petition of the 19 taxpayers, filed by O’Keefe, based its claim on precedent established under Massachusetts law that the town must appropriate whatever funds the school committee deems necessary. The taxpayers’ petition, which was filed in equity court in April, contained 11 points, eight of which established the “facts” in the case. The other three asked the court to act and restore the school budget to the figure originally requested by the School Committee.

The school suit was heard by Cambridge Superior Court in late November. After initially reserving his decision, Judge Frank W. Tomasello, in a somewhat convoluted opinion, ruled that the Town must pay $16,700 plus 25 percent penalty. Backing his ruling with a four-point brief. He found that:

1–The School Committee budget submitted to the Finance Committee was reduced by $16,700 by the Town Meeting, and that figure had not been restored.

2–Federal funds granted under Public Laws 86 and 87 were more than ample to satisfy the $16,700 deficiency.

3–On November 23, 1964 when the case was heard, the School Committee had expended and committed $11,160.01 of this and had an uncommitted sum of $3,934.64 on hand.

4–The School Committee had acted in good faith in its submission of its budget estimate and that the deficit of $16,700 is necessary to fulfill the Committee’s obligation in the operation of Sudbury public schools.

Based on these facts, the Fence Viewer reported, Judge Tomasello ruled that the School Committee acted within the statutory requirements in its submission of its estimate; that the Committee was solely empowered to determine the needs of the schools; that Town Meeting acted without right in its reduction of the budget; and that there is a deficit that should be restored.

The dancing in the streets didn’t last long. Early in December, the Selectmen voted unanimously to appeal the school decision to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Selectman Ed Kreitsek, who had previously absented himself from suit decisions, joined with Dick Venne and John Taft, saying there was a fine point in the case which has never been treated by the high court. “I too, am very anxious to get an answer,” he said.

Hardy announced that the appeal would be based on Judge Tomasello’s failure to rule on the intent of Public Law 874 under which towns are granted federal funds for school support. He asserted that all federal funds must be spent the year they are received and not held in a contingency fund. He estimated that the appeal would cost the town between $2,000 and $2,500.

The appeal was heard in September 1965, but the good news for the Town didn’t arrive until February 23, 1966 when Justice John V. Spalding reversed Judge Tomasello’s decree.

At issue, he said, was the disposition of federal dollars. In 1964 the Town Meeting refused to vote full appropriation, cutting the School Committee’s request by $16,700 on the grounds that the committee was withholding federal funds to pay for unanticipated expenditures throughout the year.

Spalding, speaking for the Court, ruled that federal funds must be expended for current expenses of the school system. Money must go into the town treasury as a separate account and be expended by the School Committee without further appropriation.

The Court found that the Committee had withheld about $20,000 to purchase equipment and cover unforeseen circumstances not listed in the annual budget presented to the Town. “No authorization exists for the expenditure of federal funds in the manner in which the committee has expended them, namely for unanticipated and unlisted items,” Judge Spalding decreed.

The Supreme Judicial Court further pointed out that this ruling in no way impaired or limited the traditional authority of the School Committee to decide the financial needs of its school system and establish its budget. It affected only the way in which the committee accounted for its expenditures and how federal monies were to be applied.

It was a small amount of money, but it was the principle of the thing,” Powers recalled later. “Can you successfully challenge a school committee? The thinking and the case law said no. We won it and that [the federal aid money] was the crack in the armor.

The suit had a profound impact on the relationship between the Finance and School Committees. While noting that Sudbury Schools already exceeded nearly all standards of the Willis Report, a document referred to by one state legislator as “the fur coat, pearl necklace and mink stole for the school system,” Mackenzie offered an olive branch:

In part, the Finance Committee has contributed to this problem (the School Committee continuing to ask for more money, per pupil, and absolute dollar costs going up in the face of predictions of declining school enrollment) by continually maneuvering for cost reductions in other town services to compensate for tax rate increases generated by the school systems.

We have, however, arrived at a point where no further economies are advisable if we consider the longer term development of the community. Also, this is not to imply that the schools have been uncooperative.

This is not a recommendation to scuttle the system or to retreat from high standards. It is suggested that greater efficiencies be introduced, that budgets be based only on absolute need and not include options for duplications and that non-educational costs or factors with only marginal educational implications be reduced or eliminated entirely in certain cases…. School Committee members must be elected who are willing and capable of exercising financial responsibility as well as educational responsibility.

MacKenzie’s words fell on deaf ears. In the winter of 1969, faced with a $25 per thousand tax increase, the citizens of Sudbury took matters into their own hands. SAVE Fiscal Sanity in Sudbury, the first of several taxpayers’ organizations, was formed and budget hearings and town meetings would never be quite the same again.

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Sudbury, 1890-1989, 100 years in the life of a Town, a 256-page sequel to A.S. Hudson’s History of Sudbury. Autographed copies are available from Porcupine Enterprises, 106 Woodside Road, Sudbury, MA 01776. Hardbound presentation copies are $26.25 including tax plus $3.20 postage. Trade paperbacks are $12.60 including tax plus $3.20 postage.