Interim Groton-Dunstable Regional School Superintendent Tony Bent told parents about a dozen unanticipated layoffs of nonteaching staff and a districtwide hiring and spending freeze in an email Wednesday morning. The financial surprise arrived in a subtle way, sandwiched between updates on new technology and school safety improvements.
The cost cutting measures stem from a budget shortfall Bent estimated to be in excess of $400,000. He said that faulty accounting procedures for fiscal years 2012 and 2013 masked a discrepancy between what was budgeted and the district’s financial commitments. The problem was uncovered by newly hired Director of Business and Finance Jared Stanton, who started work in July.
In the email, Bent explained that the district ” … has been forced to layoff [sic] or reduce hours of approximately a dozen staff members. In order to be part of the solution to this problem, I have asked the School Committee to reduce the remaining portion of my contract to 80%. While no classroom teachers are involved, staff in support positions, indeed, have been affected. These actions became necessary as it became evident that the school budget for 2013-2014 was not built upon a solid foundation and current expenses exceed budgeted amounts.” He added that he and the finance staff are “fully committed to resolving these issues going forward.”
In a telephone interview, Bent said that there were “Errors made in the construction of the salary obligations in several employee groups.”
School Committee Chair Alison Manugian commented via e-mail, “I am confident that the administration has identified the weak points in the budgets for FY ’13 and ’14. We are awaiting outside certification of end of year numbers. The School Committee is committed to working with the administration to craft the budget for FY15. We are also working to identify internal process changes that will strengthen our system.”
Budget and Finance Chair Jim Frey said, “Regarding the budget — I have no further comments beyond what Dr. Bent has indicated at this time, other than to confirm that the errors that were uncovered will most certainly influence the FY15 budget, and in fact, already have.”
Committee member John Giger agreed with his colleagues, saying, “I think you have the facts on the current situation. I’m aware of the current problem and the efforts to address it but haven’t seen or heard any assessment or discussion on what, if any, impact it may have on the budget for next year.”
Bent was unwilling to pinpoint the source of the mistakes but admitted some frustration when he learned from Stanton that budget allocations for staff salaries and special education costs did not reflect the actual obligations of the School District. Shortly after he was hired last summer, Stanton identified the errors and pointed them out to Bent and the School Committee. The senior administration has since been working to trim costs and develop a budget for FY15 that accurately reflects the district’s commitments.
Bent emphasized that while layoffs are never easy, the “philosophy behind the cuts was to stay as far from the classroom as we could,” which is reflected in central office, paraprofessional and custodial staff reductions as well as Bent’s own contract.
The superintendent was quick to point out that all of the district’s expenditures are legitimate, and he also emphasized that the current crisis is due in no small part to the district’s reluctance to fully fund a “proper” budget in recent years.
“We have been underfunding the budget all along, and the chickens are coming home to roost,” he said. The district’s reliance on its Excess and Deficiency Fund (E&D) to make up shortfalls each year, combined with the faulty accounting procedures, masked the ongoing underfunding problem. In fiscal year 2015, Bent said, E&D will no longer be available to tap for shortfalls and the district will need to “clean the process and develop a budget based on the real numbers.”
The underfunded budget issue is not new. Since he joined the district in 2012, Bent has consistently said that G-DRSD has not been fully funding the costs of education and committed to bring the budget up to modern funding levels. Implicit in his stance is the view that the budget cycles leading up to FY2013 did not meet the mandated obligations or stated goals of the district.
It was unclear whether the problems began to develop during former Superintendent Joseph Mastrocola’s tenure, or under his predecessor, Superintendent Alan Genovese.
Mastracola, now superintendent of the Peabody Massachusetts schools, was credited by many in Groton and Dunstable for bringing the district budget under control.
But several critics, all of whom requested anonymity, said that under Mastrocola, the district failed to provide mandated supports for students at risk by cutting funding in guidance, school psychology and adjustment services. Those cuts led to students with unmet social and emotional needs leaving the district for hospitalizations and out-of-district placements — expensive long-term fixes for short-term financial gains that made the budget look good at the time. But the cost of the outplacements began to surface after Mastrocola left the district to accept the superintendent post in Peabody at the end of the 2011-2012 school year.
Under Bent, who replaced Mastrocola, the district has restored some necessary staff and programs, including the addition of therapeutic classrooms at the middle and high schools, resulting in some students returning to the district from outside placements.
Bent said he is committed to spend his remaining months with the district building a solid, transparent budget process and a realistic budget that accurately reflects the needs of the district.
Asked if the budget issue will affect the current search for a permanent superintendent, Manugian responded, “Difficult economic times have challenged many districts, including ours. We are a strong district with dynamic arts, athletic, and academic programs. We have fabulous educators and support staff and our communities recognize the value of high quality public education. I remain confident that we will be able to successfully find a new leader for our district.”