Feb 172014

Last week’s hearing on the proposed Groton-Dunstable Regional School District 2015 Budget didn’t go exactly as planned. The School Committee hoped the evening would be part of an ongoing dialogue with the community about creative ways to address an anticipated $2.5M shortfall. Instead, residents took control and lectured the committee about fears surrounding programs cuts — especially in arts programs.

School Committee Chair Alison Manugian took pains to explain that the proposed budget available online and the numbers presented by school district personnel Wednesday evening are possible scenarios prepared for School Committee and community consideration as the budget process unfolds.

In a telephone interview this weekend, Interim Superintendent Tony Bent confirmed that the District budget is a work in progress and that District staff are working to address “inconsistencies and errors” that appear in the proposed budget currently posted on the District website.

Manugian stated at the hearing on February 12 that the school committee “has not approved any program cuts at all.” She said later that the savings from any possible cuts will not be known until the school committee conducts a budget workshop this Thursday afternoon, February 20 (12:30-5 p.m. in the district’s central offices in the Prescott School building on Main Street).

Tuesday evening, February 18, Selectmen and the Finance Committee members from both Groton and Dunstable will meet with School Committee members and administrators to discuss funding scenarios and a timeline for the budget process. (In the second floor meeting room in Groton Town Hall at 7 p.m.)

Layoffs at the high school the week before the hearing gave many people attending the public hearing the impression that the committee has already set some budget priorities. Bent said that the timing of the high school layoffs “may have been ill-advised” and explained that those decision were made because low enrollments in the classes taught by the professional staff did not justify the costs of paying for those positions.

He noted that “The impetus behind notifying the professional staff in February is to give them as much notice as possible.” Issuing the layoff notices the week before the public hearing created the misunderstanding that the staff cuts were part of the budget deficit reduction process, when in fact those kinds of enrollment-driven adjustments to professional staff positions are made in most years, he said.

Last Wednesday’s presentation by Bent, Assistant Superintendent Kerry Clery, Director of Technology Andrew Marcinek, and Business and Finance Manager Jared Stanton summarized some of the major expenditures that make up the School District Budget.

But even after the presentations and the hearing, a number of issues remain unclear.

The top three budget priorities outlined in Clery’s part of the presentation were district-wide goals that span all schools:

  • Implementing the state required Educator Evaluation
  • Further alignment to the Common Core Standards
  • Continued integration of technology into the instructional program

Two of these are state-mandated goals that the district is obligated to pursue. However, the relationship between those educational priorities and specific expenses in the budget and the costs of pursuing them were not clearly presented.

The budget presentation lacked consistency and uniformity in the way the numbers were illustrated and itemized, making it impossible to compare costs between departments and fiscal years (some numbers were for FY13, some for FY14, and some projected for FY15). The presentation was also selective in attaching projected costs to some initiatives, but not others.

Bent explained that changes in accounting processes across fiscal years make it difficult to present them clearly, but he also acknowledged that the district has received so many requests for detailed numbers that the effort to meet all of those demands resulted in a confusing presentation.

Everybody wants lots of information,” he said, and with a number of central office staff out on leave in recent months there has been “a capacity problem in responding to all of the requests for information.”

In the more detailed budget proposal available on the G-DRSD website, the projected numbers apply to only to FY15 but lack consistency among the budget summaries as they are allocated across schools. For example:

  • Guidance counselor caseloads (289 per counselor) appear in the High School Budget but there is not a corresponding line item with caseloads for the Middle School.
  • Florence Roche has a single full-time Team Chair, but Swallow Union does not show one, even though the two elementary schools share the position.
  • Drama appears in the breakdown of teaching positions in the Middle School, but not at the High School.
  • Swallow Union and the High School each have a single full-time “Library” position but Florence Roche and the Middle School don’t have an allocation under the Library line item.

The Groton Line has requested a number of clarifications of these items and a specific breakdown of what positions were (or would be) eliminated in the 8.16 reduction in full time employees planned for FY15. Bent said the numbers are available and will be forthcoming as the budget process continues.

He indicated that G-DRSD’s approach of building a district budget from building-based budgets contributes to the lack of uniformity across budget areas.

To avoid accounting errors like the ones that triggered the current deficit, Bent says the district has “already consulted with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), the Department of Revenue (DOR), and our auditors, and the way we presented the budget for FY15 is the way we have been advised to do so. The numbers going forward will be more consistent because they will match our FY15 presentation of them.”

In response to requests for more detailed accounting of athletics expenditures, both Bent and Manugian responded that breakdowns by sport are not readily available. Bent said that because athletics only makes up $275,000 of the district operating budget it’s unlikely that there are significant savings to be found even with the specific numbers in hand. Both he and Manugian stated that increasing athletic fees will probably be part of the budget solution.

At this Thursday’s workshop meeting, the administration will give the School Committee a set of scenarios that outline possible program cuts and the savings to be gleaned from each proposed cut. Bent said the process will eliminate some of the confusion about what programs are at risk and how various budget cuts might affect every school and every student. Bent warned, however, that those amounts will be subject to change. The numbers presented on Thursday will be potential adjustments, suggestions that the School Committee can use to prioritize the areas where they want more detailed analysis.

Manugian said via email that once the School Committee reviews the data, “the prioritized reduction scenarios list will be posted on the website,” and a public information or question and answer session will be scheduled.

Bent and Manugian stressed that the budget gap cannot be closed with spending cuts alone. Manugian is adamant that “we don’t all get bogged down in the reduction scenario details to the extent that we lose sight of the hope for increased revenue.”

That will be part of the agenda at the February 18 meeting. Bent said that both he and Stanton expect to attend the meeting, and expressed his appreciation for the statements of support made Wednesday night by Groton selectmen Josh Degen and Peter Cunningham and FinCom member Bob Hargraves. “I am perfectly energized by the comments made by the public officials,” he said. “Bob Hargraves’ said that ‘we are one team,’ and I believe that such inspirational talk will help us get to the best possible resolution.”