Now what? Fuller says Horace Mann work will happen

The vote is over — but the overrides aren’t going away as an issue.

After Newton residents approved two tax increases for school construction but rejected a larger increase for the city’s general budget last Tuesday, Mayor Ruthanne Fuller said last week she would take a “hard look” at how to “eventually” fund what would have been paid for by the $9.2 million override. That included $4.5 million for schools in general and $775,000 for an addition to the Horace Mann School.

On Monday, Fuller said the Horace Mann work would happen “sooner rather than later,” and parents say it can’t wait any longer.

“‘Eventually does not solve the problem we’ve been facing for four years,” said Horace Mann parent Alec Zimmer, a member of the school’s Building Committee. “We are committed to seeing this project through one way or another, we won’t rest until it’s done.”

Split votes

About 34 percent of the 58,676 registered voters in Newton either voted early or turned out last Tuesday to weigh in on three override questions — the $9.2 million tax increase for the city’s operating budget, a $2.3 million increase for work at the Countryside School, and a $3.5 million increase for work at the Franklin School. The operating override failed by a margin of 9,428 to 10,566, while the Countryside override was approved by a margin of 10,430 to 9,453 and the Franklin School was approved by a margin of 10,461 to 9,457.

“This was a difficult time to ask people to raise their taxes. I believed, and still believe, that it was right and important for Newtonians to have the choice and vote,” Fuller said in a statement. “Without additional funding, our City will have to make some challenging decisions that will reverberate through our programs, services and offerings… Throughout these last six months, I have witnessed the commitment that people with a variety of views have for our city. Newtonians care deeply. Passions run high. It is time to roll up our sleeves, and work with one another for the future of this wonderful city that we all call home.”

Twelve out of 32 precincts — 1-2, 1-3, 2-1, 2-2, 2-3, 3-1, 4-2, 5-2, 5-3, 6-2, 6-3 and 6-4 — voted yes on all three questions, while nine precincts — 1-1, 1-4, 4-4, 7-1, 7-3, 7-4, 8-1, 8-2 and 8-4 — voted no on all three questions. The remaining precincts split their votes, with some questions approved and some voted down. Precincts 5-4 and 2-4 both saw more than 800 voters turn out, while precinct 7-3 had just under 200. 

Two campaign groups, Vote Yes For Newton and No Override Newton, organized in the months prior to the vote and Vote Yes For Newton raised more than $40,000 from donors in support of the override. No Override Newton did not file campaign finance reports showing their fundraising and spending despite state requirements to do so a week before an election, leaving voters with no knowledge of how their campaign was funded.

In a statement, No Override Newton organizers said the outcome of the election showed city officials are out of touch with residents.

“The election results prove current city leadership has lost the confidence of our community. Our residents feel profoundly disenfranchised, neighbors sense political division and alienation throughout our community. Independent city councilors and school committee members feel silenced and marginalized,” the statement read in part. “Our hope is that Newton’s current political leadership takes a long, hard, thoughtful look in their collective mirrors, resisting the urge to justify their past patterns and behavior with “if only the weather was better” or some other avoidance of self-awareness. We hope that as they take that proverbial look in the mirror they reflect and say “maybe there is something to what these residents are saying? Let me build a relationship of trust so I can learn more.”

In a statement, Fuller said the city would “eventually fund in future years” projects that would have been funded by the operating override — the Horace Mann work; $500,000 on climate resilience work and $500,000 on tree planting and maintenance; $500,000 for senior services; $1 million for parks, fields and playground improvements; and $1.4 million on maintaining road paving and street safety work schedules. Next year’s school budget is facing a shortfall of $6 million, and Fuller said she and school officials were working to create a balanced budget despite not having the $4.5 million that would have come from the operating override.

‘Political decision’

Both the Countryside and Franklin School projects, which could be major renovations or completely new buildings, are proposed to cost about $61 million, but the Massachusetts School Building Authority is expected to pay about 30 percent of Countryside’s cost. But that was contingent on the city having funds for the rest of the project, and during the campaign Fuller said that if the Countryside override failed, the MSBA funds would likely be lost as well.

The MSBA has been notified that the override vote passed and plans for both schools are moving ahead, a Fuller administration spokesperson said. But the Horace Mann work is on hold. While the Countryside and Franklin schools had separate override questions for their work, the $23 million Horace Mann addition was to be funded by $7.5 million in free cash and $775,000 added to the budget via the $9.2 million operating override — a dynamic Horace Mann supporters say hurt their chances of getting funded.

“We knew we were in trouble from day one,” former Horace Mann teacher Mike Feldstein said of being placed in the operating budget. “It’s very frustrating to be in this position where we think of all the great projects about to happen and ours is the only one put on hold.”

The Horace Mann school was moved from its original location on Watertown Street to the former Carr School building in 2019, taking over a building that had previously been used as an impermanent swing space for other schools under construction. Zimmer said the classroom sizes are 40 percent too small, according to MSBA specifications, and school officials’ decision to move Horace Mann permanently prompted outrage from parents and teachers, and promises for an addition.

“We need to earn the [school community’s] trust back,” Fuller told parents at a 2019 meeting, as reported in the Newton TAB. “We made mistakes along the way.”

But after three years of officials and the school’s building committee studying the site and planning an addition, Fuller decided to fund part of the project through the override. When asked why Fuller made that decision, mayoral spokesperson Ellen Ishkanian referred to Fuller’s override website.

“We intend to bond a lower amount ($13 million) for the work at Horace Mann Elementary School, so we felt it was an appropriate project to include in the operating override,” the site reads. “Notably, similar to the 2013 overrides a decade ago, there are three override ballot questions, two debt exclusions questions and one operating override question which includes building projects.”

But that decision was not what the Horace Mann community wanted, Zimmer said.

“Unfortunately, Mayor Fuller made a political decision to erode that trust further by putting Horace Mann in the operating override. This is just speculation, but she may have made this decision to try and make the operating override more attractive. Perhaps this was a way to entice folks on the north side of the city to vote for the operating override,” Zimmer said.

 “In 2019 the mayor said it was a problem and it would get fixed; there was no conditional thing about an override … we were going to move forward,” Feldstein said. “Given our clout and influence and how hard we were willing to work to make Horace Mann happen, I believe they placed us there for that very reason, that we could provide good strong support.”

Zimmer said he and other Horace Mann community members are reaching out to School Committee and City Council members to figure out a way to fund the addition. In a statement Monday, Fuller said she is working to make Horace Mann a priority.

“As we navigate the spring budget process, I will simultaneously be working hard to see what we can do to help move our capital infrastructure plans forward. We do this every year at this time,” Fuller said. “The Horace Mann School addition and renovation is very important and will be part of our work. I will work hard to try and find a way to do the Horace Mann project sooner rather than later.”

That has to happen, Zimmer said.

“As a community we are not done, we are disappointed but not discouraged,” Zimmer said. “We’re talking with a number of city leaders to build community support to get Horace Mann funded in as short a timeline as possible. We’ve been waiting here for four years in what is a swing space school and we can’t wait any longer. I’m not sure what the path is at the moment other than to find our way into the budget this year.”