Feb 282014

The Groton-Dunstable School Committee reached consensus on several small cuts to the FY15 budget that nibbled at the edges of a $2.6 million deficit at a 3.5 hour meeting Wednesday evening. Staring down a March 5 deadline by which it must certify its Fiscal Year 2015 budget, committee members endorsed moving the district’s administrators and their offices out of the old Prescott School building and into other district buildings (a $40,000 savings) and increasing the price of hot lunch fees by 25 cents (to raise $50,000). Most members expressed reluctance to certify a budget that would provide less than what they consider “level service,” saying their responsibility was to maintain the district’s academic excellence by advocating for the money to support it.

“We can’t make vanilla ice cream out of a pile of top soil,” School Committee member John Giger said, supporting a budget that he said would allow Groton and Dunstable students to get the best education possible. “I want to hear the voters tell me that they don’t want to fund it.”

The committee appeared to move closer to agreeing on several items that might make a bigger impact on the budget deficit, including reducing the money budgeted for the district’s Excess and Deficiency fund by $250,000. Business and Finance Director Jared Stanton reported that barring any unforeseen variations, the district may end FY14 with as much as $350,000 in the E&D fund that could roll over to FY15, money that was not expected in earlier budget talks.

The committee discussed cutting $100,000 from the proposed $275,000 athletic budget and charged the administration with coming up with cuts or revenue to make up that difference. High School Principal Michael Mastrullo estimated an increase in user fees for high school athletes from $300 to $400 could bring in an additional $77,500 while raising the family cap from $1,000 to $1,500 might bring in an additional $6,000. Increasing fees may drop participation if families can’t afford them, or don’t see the worth of the extra cost, he warned.

“There certainly is a tipping point, but I don’t know what that is,” said Mastrullo who noted there is no official financial aid policy for families who can’t afford athletic participation fees.

Mastrullo said the district could charge extra user fees for teams that use outside facilities. Currently, the Groton School charges the district $11,000 for use of its ice for practices and games, and that extra cost could be divided among team participants. In addition, lift tickets for ski team members who compete at Nashoba Valley Ski Area cost $350 per member, more than the $300 user fee, meaning each participant costs the district $50.

The committee addressed items identified as “Priority 1” on the “Reduction Scenarios” document prepared by the administration to detail possible cuts and their impact. Although the document said the priority levels “indicate the level of further exploration needed, with Level 1 needing more in-depth research and Level 3 needing less,” Interim Superintendent Tony Bent acknowledged that by definition, Priority 1 items would be most likely to be implemented. “Hidden in that statement is that [Priority 1] would be considered more quickly for cut,” he said. “You don’t have to do a lot of research [into Priority 3 items] because it is so distasteful.”

Of the Priority 1 items, the committee balked at cutting $153,000 from the school-based supplies and equipment line item, a  40 percent reduction from last year. Principals of all four schools recommended the cut over potentially losing teachers and staff. Florence Roche Principal Liz Garden said that at Florence Roche, the cut next year represents “not a huge impact because of our support of the PTA” that gives donated money to each classroom teacher at the school for needed supplies.

Outsourcing custodial services, which would result in multiple layoffs of district employees but could save several hundred thousand dollars, moved forward. The committee recommended that bid requests be prepared and sent out immediately so they could better understand how much money outsourcing some or all custodial services could save the district. Bent originally estimated a savings of $344,000, based on other towns’ experiences.

Another potentially big change could include charging for bus transportation for students living within 1.5 miles from the schools. It may be allowed under state law because the cost is not reimbursed by the state, but the lack of sidewalks to allow students to walk to school — safe routes to school — and the traffic chaos created by more parents dropping off kids at school was noted. A bus survey will also be conducted to see if any buses can be cut from the fleet due to a lack of riders.

The committee will meet on Wednesday, March 5, to vote on a final budget for FY15. After that time, the budget can only be reduced. Once the budget is finalized, the district passes the assessment request to the towns, and the towns must decide whether and how they can fund the assessments.

On April 1, Groton residents will vote on whether funds for building the new fires station can be moved from the annual budget to a debt exclusion, freeing up extra space under the levy limit to apply to the schools.

The need or size of a potential override by both towns won’t be known until the school budget request is certified and the towns indicate how much money is available to fund the assessments. “There is [some] room under the existing levy limit for Groton. Dunstable is not in a similar position,” School Committee member Jim Frey said. “They are right up against that legal 2.5 percent limit. In general it’s a more difficult situation.”