Feb 202014

A joint meeting among members of the Groton-Dunstable Regional School Committee and the Groton and Dunstable Boards of Selectmen and Finance Committees produced more questions than answers on Tuesday night, February 18. Town leaders struggled to understand the origins of — and potential solutions to — the $2.6 million gap in what the school district says it needs for the proposed FY’15 budget and how much money is available to fund it.

Groton Selectmen and FinCom members requested more information from the school administration, including clearer budget documents that compared costs from year to year, and a specific breakdown of special education costs. A common theme of the comments was unwillingness to pursue a solution that included an override for either town.

While acknowledging unfunded state mandates and volatile special education costs, several participants pressed the school administration as to why it could not create five-year budget estimates, in the hopes of assuring the town that overrides would not be required year after year. Other urged the School Committee to use $250,000 from the district’s Excess and Deficiency budget — the fund used to cover unexpected expenses—to help lower the requested assessment.

“Anything you can do the keep out of an override situation is going to lead to a better outcome for the children,” Selectman Josh Degan said.

The roots of the current $2.6 million problem was caused by several accounting errors compounded over three years, according to school committee Budget and Finance committee chair Jim Frey. He wrote in an email that, “The FY13 budget was constructed using projections of salaries that did not include any cost of living raises, because our negotiations were open and such raises were unresolved. It also included projected costs of employee health insurance based on prior rates plus expected increases in plan costs. We worked with the unions to restructure the health insurance plan offerings and rates and used the savings to offset cost of living increases that were eventually granted and effective for FY13. This was not a strategy to hide the information. If the unions had not agreed to the changes in health insurance, we would have been unable to support the salary increases.

The FY14 budgeting error was indirectly related to this, but it had nothing to do with the negotiations as described above. The new salary schedules that were negotiated during FY’13 were not loaded into the FY’14 budgeting spreadsheets as they should have been. And our understanding is that this was purely and simply a clerical error.”

On Tuesday night, the district’s Director of Business and Finance, Jared Stanton, reported that an outside “special” audit was completed just that morning, and a full report is expected in two weeks.

“I touched base with [the auditor] today, and he reported no fraud. I just wanted to clarify that,” Stanton said.

Left unresolved was how much money could be cut from the town side to free up money under the levy limit to apply to the school’s problem. Changing the funding of the new fire station to a debt exclusion, rather than funding it under the annual levy limit, will require a special town meeting vote, but could free up close to $470,000.

The School Committee is meeting today, Feb. 20, in an afternoon-long “workshop” to create a priority list of cuts that would be required if the towns cannot, or will not, come up with some portion of the $2.6 million in revenue. Many ideas are on the table, including cutting athletics, eliminating foreign languages in the middle school, and closing school buildings. But School Committee Chair Alison Manugian said she is hearing from a vocal group of parents who are already objecting to the initial round of cuts to the FY’15 budget, which included the elimination of 8.16 full-time equivalent teachers.

“We are hearing more and more that our current budget is not adequate” even before these larger cuts are discussed, Manugian said.

An online petition, organized by parents Gina Cronin, Angela Donahue and Wendy Kelly, seems to support that assertion. Titled “Reinstate Cut Faculty Positions and Table Any Plans to Redistrict Students as Proposed in the Groton Dunstable Regional School District FY 2015 Budget,” the petition states:

“After careful study of the proposed budget, it is clear that the school administrators and the Superintendent of Schools have not put forth a level-service budget for the school district given the faculty cuts at each of the four schools. We ask that the School Committee and the Administration reinstate the cut faculty positions so that it is a true level-service budget from the perspective of the teachers and, most importantly, the students. We also ask that special consideration be given to those class sizes already projected to be at or approaching twenty-five (25) or more students.”

As of Thursday, February 20, the petition had 196 signatures.