By Hiroko Sato
DUNSTABLE -- Groton-Dunstable Regional School officials are taking a collective sigh of relief after Dunstable Town Meeting almost unanimously passed the $35.7 million school operational budget for fiscal 2015, contingent upon an approval of a $200,000 tax override in next Monday's referendum.
"It was terrific," interim Superintendent of Schools Tony Bent said of the vote. Bent noted the decision comes nearly 1 1/2 months after Groton voters agreed to finance its fire-station project through a debt exclusion to free up extra money for the School District.
"We trimmed our budget as much as we possibly could without hurting the education of children. And ultimately, the towns realized the importance of education in both towns," Bent said.
But not everyone is optimistic that the tax-override proposal will easily pass. Yu-He Zhang, a Dunstable parent, said voters' decisions at the ballot box will all depend on whether taxpayers choose quality education over smaller tax bills.
"We prefer going for excellence (of education)" than lower taxes, Zhang said.
"It's easy to say no. We hope there will enough people to say yes," said Jim Frey, a Dunstable representative for the School Committee.
Following presentations by Finance Committee member Joseph Dean and Groton-Dunstable School Committee members Frey and Luis DeLoureiro on the proposed tax override, Town Meeting passed the extra funding with little discussion.
Frey said the $1.9 million budget shortfall stems from a combination special-education costs and accounting errors that started in fiscal 2013.
After some layoffs and other spending reductions as well as tapping into the rainy-day account, the district balanced the 2013 budget and came up with a $35.7 million spending plan for fiscal 2015, lower than $35.9 million in projected actual spending for fiscal 2014.
All voted for the school spending plan with little discussion. Some voters said after the meeting they were willing to pay more, as education is important to them.
Town Meeting also passed the $8.7 million budget for fiscal 2015. The budget figure is contingent upon the passage of the $200,000 tax override next week and represents an increase of $558,439, or 6.8 percent from fiscal 2014. Of that increase, $498,000 will go toward the school budget should the tax override pass.
Town Meeting also passed proposals to change the town treasurer and the assessor from elected positions to appointed ones. This means voters will now be asked to officially make these changes in next Monday's referendum. Selectmen have said they want stability in these positions and that they hope to merge them into one position, as recommended by the state Department of Revenue.