“This first cut, as large as the increase is, this is a budget that presents a conservative approach,” Bent said. “We feel this is the only responsible way to produce a budget for this district.”
The $2.6 million in extra assessments needed to fund the FY’15 budget resulted from an accounting error that dates back to the FY’13 budget, according to School Committee Chair Alison Manugian.
“In Fiscal Year ’13 and ’14, we did not ask the towns for an increase in funding. It was our error not to do so,” Manugian said. If the school district had asked for a 2.5 percent increase over those years, including FY1’15, “we would be right on track. If we had gone in a straight line increasing our request to the towns, we would not be in this situation.”
About 200 people attended the public hearing at the Performing Arts Center. Some offered revenue generation ideas, others pleaded to protect the arts and music programs, and many expressed frustration at the potentially painful cuts that would result if the towns could not — or choose not to — increase the assessment.
Just how much of an override might be needed by both towns was not discussed.
A group of parents presented a proposal to charge every family with children in the school district up to $500 to support the arts and music programs within the school, with the potential of raising up to $650,000. Several people questioned why the towns could not charge for bus transportation like other towns do, only to learn that state law prohibits regional school districts from doing so.
A large group of high school students from the Drama Guild, upset that part of the initial budget cuts included the elimination of a part-time drama teacher, questioned why the drama program was targeted. Principal Michael Mastrullo addressed the students and assured them the drama program was not being eliminated.
“The decision to cut a drama teacher rests with me,” Mastrullo said. The part-time position was added just last year, he said, but the after-school drama program was previously run by other teachers who stepped in to the advisory role. “I do not see it as the end of the drama program. It did exist before this position.”
The budget, as it stands now, includes a reduction of 8.16 full-time equivalent staff, including the drama teacher and a full-time art teacher at the high school, three teachers at the middle school, and one each at the Florence Roche and Swallow Union elementary schools. Enrollment in the district as a whole continues to decline, even though the number of incoming School Choice students has doubled from 30 to 60.
Groton selectmen Peter Cunningham and Josh Degen assured those at the hearing that the town is working to find money from the town side of the budget to apply to the problem. “We’re caught in a perfect storm of a number of issues. The town is very, very supportive on trying to work cooperatively with the School Committee to come up with a solution to this problem,” Cunningham said.
Members of the School Committee and the Boards of Selectmen and Finance Committees from Groton and Dunstable will meet in a joint open session to discuss ideas for cuts and revenue generation on both the town and school sides of the budget. The meeting will be Tuesday, February 18, 2014 at 7 p.m. in the second floor meeting room of the Groton Town Hall, 173 Main Street.
The School Committee has published a Q&A document listing potential budget-cutting ideas that committee members have received and replies to the ideas.