GROTON -- In spite of a mid-winter storm that left nearly a foot of new snow, town and school district officials held a previously scheduled joint meeting Tuesday at Town Hall to discuss the ongoing crisis in the schools' budget for fiscal 2015.
"We only had a limited amount of dates to do it so we had to hold the meeting Tuesday night," said Board of Selectmen chairman Peter Cunningham the next day. "The Board of Selectmen were there as well as the town manager, and School Committee members; Dunstable FinCom was there too and one of their selectmen, and about two dozen members of the public."
"The joint meeting was an important step to discuss the budget process and current issues on how we're going to get this in," said School Committee member James Frey. "It was a good exchange of ideas about where we can work collaboratively to bridge the budget gap. Dunstable is not as far along in their budget formulation process as Groton, but they were there to contribute questions and comments ... it will all come together when the School Committee votes and passes a district budget on March 5.
Officials gathered in response to the discovery late last year of an error in the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District's books that showed it was spending more than it was taking in.
What the accounting review showed was that although the approved school operating budget for fiscal 2013 stood at $35,200,000, the district's total obligations came to $36,204,212 a difference of $1,004,000.
Initial cuts eliminated the shortfall for that year while further efforts, including more cuts and new sources of revenue, reduced the shortfall for 2014 to $464,485.
But since the initial problem has a rollover effect, a major problem remains for 2015, where an estimated $2.7 million will be needed to make ends meet.
The bottom line, reported Town Manager Mark Haddad, was that in the district's proposed budget for FY15, Groton would be assessed $1.9 million over the estimated $15 million it paid in 2014. Haddad has suggested a number of cuts in planned town spending and use of its unexpended tax levy, which currently runs to about $400,000.
But that amount could be expanded if residents agree to change the method of payment for the new Center Fire Station, which is now being funded with money from the levy limit, and switching it to a simple debt exclusion.
"That was talked about at the joint meeting and will be talked about again at the selectmen's meeting on Feb. 24," said Cunningham. "We would need to hold a special election for a debt exclusion on the fire station debt."
The debt exclusion, he explained, would free up $468,000 in levy limit funds.
"When all is said and done, Groton could come up with $1.2-$1.4 million for use by the schools. Then Dunstable would have to come up with a portion which for them, would be in the $700,000 range," he added.
He cautioned that Dunstable was not as far along in its budget process and officials weren't prepared to quote any figures at the joint meeting.
"They do have some reserves but at the end of the day, they would likely need an override," concluded Cunningham.
But Cunningham offered little hope that an override would be acceptable to residents.
"A general operations override would be a hard sell to me, particularly after what they've been through with the budget. I think a debt exclusion vote on the fire station would be a much easier sell," he said. "I think a general operations override would be a tough sell but the scenarios we're looking at are going to add $400 to the average tax bill as it is, so having an override at the same time would be hard."
The difference between a debt exclusion and an override is that a debt exclusion is a one time payment while any amount voted upon in an override, remains in place every year.
There aren't any specific details yet on the school budget because of an audit of the district's books whose results won't be known for at least another two weeks, Cunningham said.
Cunningham said the joint meeting was held because the school district formally released its budget last week and it was the first time the School Committee and various town boards were able to sit down to figure out how to reconcile things.
"The School Committee has to certify the town assessments for fiscal 2015 by March 5," Cunningham continued. "After that, they can only vote to reduce them, not increase them.
Although the school district has suggested a level serviced budget for 2015, there were no decisions made on that aspect of the situation at the joint meeting.
"It is essentially a level serviced budget," Frey said. "That was the initial message coming out until last week's public hearing."
Frey said that although the equivalent of eight full time employees have been laid off as part of the proposed budget, it was actually an adjustment that had to be made because of a shrinking student population.
"So this was part of the administration's answer to hold down the long term budget," said Frey. "There had to be some slight changes in the budget and this was an opportunity to consolidate some of the staff due to declining enrollment."
"The larger thing we talked about is the state education funding formula which is not supportive of communities such as Groton and Dunstable," Cunningham said. "The education formula from the beginning has been pretty much a redistribution of wealth from towns like Groton which are considered well-to-do, to others that are less so. That's one of the problems we have to deal with."
"The joint meeting was held to just lay out what the scenarios for covering the shortfall might be," said Cunningham. "Deciphering the details of the school budget is not for the faint of heart. There have been some misunderstandings about the things that have occurred but by and large, I think those have been cleared up among the people involved. Everybody wants to support the schools and I think it's just a question of how much."
In the end, reported Cunningham, no firm decisions were made at the joint meeting.
"It was held just to hear what the towns are doing in the wake of the new budget released by the district," said Cunningham.
Following Tuesday's joint meeting, the School Committee was expected to hold a number of working sessions to look at the district's budget and the different funding scenarios suggested by the towns. Decisions would then be made about what could be cut from the budget and what could not before informing the towns, hopefully before the March 5 deadline when the committee must vote to set its assessments.
"Things don't stop on March 5," said Frey. "We can continue to work on the numbers and amend the budget after that. And we can continue to work with town boards on how to sort out the funding questions. So there's still a lot of work that goes on after March 5."