Budget & Finance

Tax Defeat Spurs Superintendent To Resign

By Catherine Gewertz — February 25, 2004 3 min read
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The superintendent of a small district outside Boston has abruptly resigned, frustrated that the town’s residents refused to approve a tax measure that could have fended off large budget cuts.

Thomas Giancristiano surprised the school committee of Winthrop when he announced at its meeting Feb. 12—three days after the defeat of the tax proposal—that he would leave his post at the end of December. He said he could not “in good conscience” remain.

“In the dire situation we’re in, I need to hold up a mirror to the community,” Mr. Giancristiano said in an interview last week. “I’m trying to get this town to pause for a second and reflect on what they’ve done.”

Lester Towlson, the finance director of the 2,100-student district, also announced his resignation at the meeting, and expressed his concern about the defeat of the tax proposal. At age 70, he had been expected to retire soon, but Mr. Giancristiano said his timing was influenced by the outcome of the town election.

The three selectmen who lead Winthrop had placed on the ballot a proposal to override Massachusetts’ Proposition 21/2. Enacted in 1980, it limits the amount communities can raise property taxes each year.

If approved, the measure would have raised local property taxes by 40 percent, or an estimated $1,200 to $1,700 per household. Of the $6 million a year it would have generated for the town, $3.5 million would have supplemented the district’s $14 million annual budget.

Too Big a Burden?

Alexander Mavrakos, a retired real estate investment executive who led the fight against the measure, said the property-tax increase would have endangered the security of many residents.

“Forty percent of our citizens are seniors, most on fixed incomes,” he said. “It’s not fair to overburden those people. We are not anti-child, either. But we want a community that’s balanced, that includes individuals who earn $20,000 or $120,000.”

Without the additional revenue, the 11/2-mile-square town on Boston’s northern line faces cuts at its four schools, and to fire and police services, and the closure of its senior center, library, and recreation department.

Patricia Milano, a school committee member, said 17 teachers will have to be laid off, as will the part-time athletic director. Bus transportation, used by about 100 students, will have to end, she said.

Those cuts come on top of reductions that already forced the layoff last school year of 22 teachers, closure of the school libraries, and the elimination of all extracurricular activities and the athletic budget. School sports continued after families paid a fee of $325 per child, per sport, per season, Ms. Milano said.

Now, without an athletic director, school officials project the sports program will stop altogether.

“I’ve been doing a lot of crying,” said Ms. Milano. “The students are just losing so much. You just sort of get to the point where you’re overwhelmed.”

Finding New Leadership

About 300 of Winthrop’s high school students staged a walkout the day after the election to express their unhappiness.

Ms. Milano, who has three children attending the town’s schools, said she worries that without a community commitment to a property-tax hike to protect school services, the town could have difficulty attracting a new superintendent.

Winthrop leaders see few options for trying to boost revenue. Businesses make up only about 6 percent of the tax base, and the town is so densely settled that little land remains on which to expand the commercial base, Mr. Giancristiano said.

Under Proposition 21/2, Winthrop is limited to increasing property taxes by $300,000 to $380,000, but its increased expenses far exceed that amount, town officials said. Covering only the increased premiums in medical insurance for city employees this year will cost $400,000, Mr. Giancristiano said.

The week after the vote, town officials were having informal conversations about the possibility of proposing another, smaller tax measure that could be put before voters.

Mr. Giancristiano, 55, said he plans to leave his post even if that smaller tax hike is approved. He said he hopes his departure will focus the town’s attention on the importance of fully supporting its schools.

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