Jan 242014

The Groton-Dunstable Regional School Committee is taking its budget problems into the community by holding two community forums next week to present information and answer questions.

  • The first will be held at Swallow Union Elementary in Dunstable on Tuesday, January 28 at 7 p.m.
  • The second will be held in the Middle School Performing Arts Center in Groton on Thursday, January 30, at 7 p.m.

Jim Frey, G-DRSD School Committee Budget and Finance Committee Chair, explains the district ' s budget problemsArt Campbell | The Groton Line

Jim Frey, G-DRSD School Committee Budget and Finance Committee Chair, explains the district’s budget problems

The meetings will present the school system’s almost $2.5M deficit problem and include a question-and-answer session. According to committee members, the sessions will not present concrete proposals for budget cuts for fiscal years 2014 and 2015. The goals, according to a news release issued at the school committee’s Wednesday meeting, are to inform both towns about the details of the budget crisis and engage in a dialogue about the multitude of options that could be used to close the a budget gap of $465,000 for FY2014 and an estimated $1.7-1.9M for FY2015. The $163,159 deficit for FY2013, in the budget that contained the initial accounting error, has been made up and that year’s budget is closed.

The news release outlined possible programmatic cuts that would help to reduce the district’s bottom line, warning that, “Cuts under discussion include elimination of foreign language at the middle school, arts and music throughout the district and potential closure of buildings. Class sizes will increase and all fees will be reconsidered as well.”

Absent from the list was any mention of athletics. Asked about the omission, School Committee Chair Alison Manugian was quick to clarify, responding in an email that “Athletics is still firmly in the mix for possible elimination,” and adding that the list of possible cuts in the media release was not an exhaustive one. Interim Superintendent Tony Bent confirmed Manugian’s explanation, saying, “We are working on scenarios for reductions/eliminations in athletics.”

At the Budget and Finance Committee and the School Committee meetings Wednesday, officials from both towns continued to press the committee for more information about how the system let the financial irregularities go unnoticed for so long. The committee declined to place the blame at the feet of any person or people. Instead, members said at the meeting and in the media release, the deficits were created by a combination of factors, including:

  • A bungled transition between accounting software packages in which incorrect payroll rates for personnel used for budgeting purposes
  • Miscommunication on the special education costs and budget between the business office and the Office of Pupil Personnel Services
  • Insufficient checks and balances in the budget process at several levels

Asked for further comment, Manugian observed that it’s not possible for the School Committee to reconstruct perfectly everything that led to the crisis, “We get the majority of our information from the superintendent and administration and are vulnerable to the lenses those individuals apply to things.”

Earlier this month, Pupil Personnel Services Director Camilla Huston announced her retirement at the end of this school year. Interim Superintendent Dr. Tony Bent is appointing a search committee to find a replacement, a person who would begin work on July 1. Dr. Kristan Rodriguez, who has been offered the superintendent’s position when Bent’s contract ends June 30, is expected participate in the PPS search process. With Huston’s departure, the district will have a completely new leadership team — superintendent, assistant superintendent, budget and finance director, PPS director, and technology director in its central office.

On the district website with the news release are documents outlining net school spending from 2009-2014, GDRSD historical spending trends, and a breakdown of fiscal years 2013 and 2014 showing the discrepancies that led to the $464,000 spending gap.

The documents will serve as the basis for the community discussion, Manugian said. The documents support the committee’s assertion that the deficit issues are not the result of overspending in any area.

Information for 2015 will not be available until the committee has met with its independent auditor in early February.

On Friday, school committee spokespeople and district leadership indicated that no additional financial data beyond those documents would be presented at the meetings next week.