GROTON -- With concerned parents filling the Groton-Dunstable Regional High School library, the Groton-Dunstable Regional School Committee met Feb. 26 to continue deliberations on how best to tackle a $2.7 million budget shortfall for fiscal 2015.
At a previous working session held the week before, School Committee members were given a "doomsday list" of potential cost-saving measures by interim superintendent Anthony Bent that included school closures, relocation of the central offices, staffing cuts, and elimination of the district's athletics program.
If all were adopted, the district could save a total of $2,766,000.
But that was unlikely as the cuts were prioritized and committee member James Frey assured Dunstable residents at the Feb. 26 meeting that the administration had already been told to take the closure of the Swallow Union Elementary School out of consideration.
That said, Frey also called the list of potential cuts a "living document" with most items still on the chopping block.
With the district's business director Jared Stanton calling the fiscal 2015 budget "lean," Bent said that such proposed measures as cuts in foreign languages and the arts, increasing class sizes, and closure of Swallow Union were "onerous," "distasteful" and would "decapitate the school system."
Others such as outsourcing custodial services and relocating the central offices from the former Prescott School were less so.
In fact, committee members did vote to relocate the central offices.
Another way to meet the shortfall instead of cutting was to find new revenue. Committee members did that by voting to increase fees for the school lunch program.
Hiking fees for athletic programs was put off until their meeting of March 5, when committee members are expected to vote to accept a budget for 2015.
The shortfall was discovered late last year, when it was shown that the approved school operating budget for fiscal 2013 stood at $35,200,000 while total obligations by the district came to $36,204,212.
Initial cuts eliminated the shortfall for that year while further efforts, including more cuts and new sources of revenue recduced the shortfall for 2014 to $464,485.
But since the initial problem with the budget had a rollover effect in subsequent years, a major problem remained for 2015.
For that year, according to the district's proposed budget, Groton would be assessed $1.9 million and Dunstable $674,579 over their assessments in fiscal 2014.
The bottom line for the district's proposed budget for fiscal 2015 comes to $36,436,892.
Frey told residents at the Feb. 26 meeting that the cause of the problem was a combination of accounting errors and the district not asking the towns for enough new funding over the last two years.
Now they need the $2.7 million just to catch up to where they should have been if all had been done correctly.
But for some committee members, that was not enough.
Aside from the need to maintain a level-serviced budget, committee member Leslie Lathrop suggested that the district should take the opportunity to ask for more money in order to reestablish services that had been cut in years past.
For their part, residents attending the meeting were sympathetic to the schools, with one telling the committee that "maintaining level-services is a place to start."
"Just do what you need to do," urged Groton resident Colette Kuchel, advising the committee to disregard cost and do whatever was needed to keep the schools where they thought they should be.
By the end of their deliberations, committee members had decided to wait until March 5 to make any final decisions on further cuts or added fees.
Among those possible deliberations was a proposal by high school principal Michael Mastrullo to raise athletic fees as a cost-saving measure.
Mastrullo said there are 775 students enrolled in the 55 different programs across the high school and middle school paid for by a $300 per student fee with a $1,000 cap for families.
The principal proposed raising those fees by $100 per student and $500 for families, which would raise about $77,500 for the district.
Mastrullo's proposal also included charging gate fees and reducing the number of games played in a season.
After considering the proposal, committee members thought they needed more time to think about it and postponed a decision until March 5.