Feb 222014

Closing buildings, eliminating athletics, arts and music, languages, and other big changes all made the “doomsday” list of possible cuts compiled by Groton-Dunstable Regional School District administrators as they catalogued options to reduce to the district’s Fiscal Year 2015 budget. The list was presented to Groton-Dunstable Regional School Committee members Thursday, February 20, in a workshop session where they searched for ways to close a $2.6 million gap between the proposed budget and expected revenue.

Interim Superintendent Tony Bent said the possible list of cuts — totaling $2.7 million — were a worst-case scenario. He told committee members and the audience that he hoped that most of what was discussed will not have to be implemented. But some items may be implemented if Groton and Dunstable cannot — or do not choose to — approve increasing their assessment enough to cover the entire budget or a modified one. The school committee has until March 5 to certify a budget — up until then, any type of modifications are possible. After that date, reductions are possible but not increases.

Groton Selectmen and Finance Committee members met on Saturday morning to discuss strategies for cutting the town side of the budget to free up room under the tax levy limit to apply additional funds to the school’s problem. One option includes changing the type of funding used to pay for a new fire station to a debt exclusion, rather than paying for it under the annual tax levy.

Some of the options Bent discussed include:

  • Eliminating foreign language instruction in the middle school could save $183,000 because the equivalent of 3.3 full time teaching positions would be eliminated. Besides undermining the foundation of students who want to take foreign languages in the high school, this would result in some adjustment to other integrated arts classes, which would increase in class size and length, Bent said.
  • Eliminating the entire athletics program could save $277,000, although the impact of such a cut may result in “civil unrest” or families moving out of the district, according to the school administration’s report. An alternative is to raise user fees from the current $300 per participant (with a $1,000 per family cap) to “eliminate some of the financial burden while maintaining a sound athletic program,” according to the report.
  • Cutting arts and music from the district could save up to $569,000; cutting them only from the middle school could save almost $300,000. While noting that the district would not be educating the “whole child,” the administration’s document did not note “civil unrest” as a possible impact of this cut.
  • Increasing class sizes in the elementary school population by cutting by two teachers each at Florence Roche and Swallow Union Elementary in addition to an already proposed reduction of one might save up to $208,000 Class sizes would increase to 25.2 students for third graders at Florence Roche and 26 students for third graders at Swallow Union, and 29.5 for fourth graders at Florence Roche and 28.5 for fourth graders at Swallow Union, based on current enrollment numbers.
  • Bent said outsourcing custodial services could save $334,000 by cutting 18 employees from the district payroll. He based his estimate on savings realized when the Chelmsford schools made a similar switch.
  • Other reduction options detailed included eliminating central administration positions such as the human resources manager ($89,000), assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction ($105,000), and director of technology ($95,000). But Bent said these positions are essential for the district to function, asserting that “you cannot have a high performing district without high performing” administration.
  • Closing Swallow Union Elementary itself could save $358,000, although all the district’s elementary school children could not fit at Florence Roche. Besides the fact that Dunstable residents might object to not having an elementary school in their town, transportation costs would probably increase, as well as the length of bus rides.
  • Other cuts discussed included moving the central office out of Prescott and moving the early childhood center (now at the old Boutwell School building) to Swallow Union, savings between $39,000 and $83,000; cutting school-based supplies and materials ($153,00); and cutting school-level support staff such as math and reading tutors, literacy coaches and technology integration specialists ($356,000).
  • The document detailing all possible cuts is posted on the district’s website, with the addition of “priority levels” from 1-3 that were not discussed Thursday. The “priorities,” according to the report, actually rank “the level of further exploration needed with Level 1 needing more in-depth research and level 3 needing less.”

    Beside cuts, the group also discussed potential revenue sources, including approaching the two private schools in town, Groton School and Lawrence Academy, to help fund the educational costs of the 15 children of faculty members residing on the campuses who are attending the town’s public schools. As tax-exempt entities, neither school pays the town property taxes. Discussions are ongoing with the schools.

    School Committee member Jim Frey, head of the Budget & Finance committee, emphasized that the workshop presented possibilities, not certainties. “Just because we’re talking about it here today doesn’t mean it’s going to happen,” he said. He also reported that legislation is pending that would allow regional school districts to charge for bus transportation. When originally enacted, the state law encouraging regionalization promised 100 percent reimbursement of transportation costs, but districts now receive just over half of those promised funds.

    The School Committee will meet again on Wednesday, February 26, to continue the discussion on possible cuts and get closer to a final budget.

    (This story includes reporting by Gail Somers-Sun. — Ed.)