Feb 112014

Without much public comment, the Groton-Dunstable Regional School Committee has quietly assigned some homework, sort of a reading assignment, to its constituents.

The district’s fiscal year 2015 budget, expected to include a large deficit because of accounting errors in the 2013 and 2014 budgets, was just made available to the public on February 9, when the 62 page draft document was posted on the district’s web site.

Why is it “homework?” A pop quiz — a public hearing — is set for this Wednesday, February 12 on the multi-million dollar document. If you don’t read the budget, you probably won’t be prepared for the hearing. The budget hearing is the only public forum scheduled before the School Committee needs to adopt the budget on March 5 and inform the town treasurers of Groton and Dunstable that the budget is ready for the voters. Groton Spring Town Meeting should vote on the budget on April 28; Dunstable’s Spring Town Meeting is on May 12.

Because of an expected larger-than-usual crowd, the location is the Middle School Performing Arts Center on Main Street. The School Committee will present the budget during its 7:00 p.m. meeting. The public hearing on the budget begins at 7:30 p.m. and will run until 9 p.m.

“The need for additional revenues appears more dramatic due to level funding and poor budget planning for FY13 & 14. The FY15 operating budget need is not dramatically greater than the actual educational spending for FY14,” School Committee Chair Alison Manugian said.

The February 12th meeting is intended to engage the community about the ongoing budget crisis and increase the understanding of what the School Districts costs are before making significant budget cuts, according to Manugian. The committee is looking for feedback on priorities before the committee it makes tough decision about what programs to eliminate in its effort to close an estimated $2.5 million budget gap for 2015.

The School Committee has also published a Q&A document listing potential budget-cutting ideas that committee members have received and replies to the ideas.

Also on February 9, committee member John Giger posted a supplementary document he created, GDRSD 2009 2013 Year End Budget Analysis with Line Item Variances, showing his analysis of line items from previous year’s budgets that were more than $10,000 over or under the budget estimate.

Manugian declined to comment on specifics in either document, explaining that a “Budget document that’s been placed online is a courtesy copy for review before the meeting Wednesday night.” She encouraged community members to bring questions to the public hearing with the expectations that some, but not all, answers will be forthcoming Wednesday night.

“There will likely be some questions that are taken and not answered on the spot,” she noted. “It’s important that the answers are clear and accurate and I prefer we take a day or two to ensure that if need be. It’s great to hear from individuals what they value and want to preserve.”

The committee is also avoiding listing possible cuts that may be made to bring down the $2.5 million deficit — she confirmed those items are not specified anywhere just yet, because the committee wants community feedback at the public meetings. “Unfortunately there’s nothing left that can readily be cut,” she said. “Ultimately without an increase on the revenue side we’re left to make the least damaging programmatic changes we can.”

Manugian reiterated that Wednesday’s hearing will not present “detailed information on possible programmatic changes and resultant savings. This will come to the school committee in coming days at a workshop setting. Direction as to priority of cuts will come from the school committee level with input from the communities.”

A quick glance at the 2015 budget document shows that some expenses are easier to see than others. Athletics costs are not listed, beyond the high school Athletic Director’s salary. Special Education costs are also distributed among building budgets.

The budget notes that class sizes vary significantly between Florence Roche Elementary in Groton and Swallow Union Elementary in Dunstable. All but two classes at Swallow Union have fewer than 20 students while all but one class at Florence Roche has more than 20. In many cases and grades there is not a large discrepancy, but the average third grade class size at Florence Roche is 25.2 while at Swallow Union it is 17.3.

Incoming Superintendent Dr. Kristan Rodriguez is expected to attend as an observer.

In related news, the school district now expects to get its independent forensic audit results back in mid-February and plans to release the results to the public shortly after they are received.