GROTON -- Fuses grew short at a special joint meeting between the Finance Committee, selectmen and Groton-Dunstable Regional School Committee Tuesday night.
After confrontational comments by School Committee member John Giger, Town Manager Mark Haddad walked out.
"This whole process is infuriating," said Selectman Joshua Degen. "We're just spinning wheels."
Angry that school officials arrived with no information about a vote the School Committee planned to take the next day finalizing its budget request for fiscal 2015, Degen asked how the committee could expect residents, including the elderly, to support what Finance Committee Chairman Jay Prager called "the largest tax increase in a long time" with no information to back it up.
"You guys screwed up," said Degen, referring to the school district's $2.7 million budget shortfall in fiscal 2015.
If a plan to raise Groton's share of the money needed to balance the district's books is approved, residents would see property-tax rates rise to $18.45 per $1,000 valuation, or about $400 per household.
The school crisis began in 2013, when the approved school-operating budget for fiscal 2013 was $35,200,000. A review revealed total obligations by the district came to $36,204,212, a difference of $1,004,000.
Initial cuts eliminated the shortfall for 2013 and 2014 but since the initial problem with the budget had a rollover effect, a problem remained for 2015.
In the district's proposed budget for fiscal 2015, Groton would need to be assessed at $1.9 million over the estimated $15 million it paid in 2014 if the books were to be balanced.
Haddad proposed a combination of cuts in planned municipal spending and use of the town's unexpended tax levy that would be boosted by removing payments for the new Center Fire Station from the levy to a debt exclusion.
If the plan worked, Groton could raise $1.5 million of the $1.9 million it has been assessed.
Haddad asked School Committee members if that would be enough.
Giger insisted the School Committee had a right to deliberate the issue on its own without pressure from the town.
"This is like an inquisition," said Giger.
Later, Giger raised the issue again saying that he did not like anyone demanding of the School Committee if $1.5 million would be enough.
After having his explanation of why he needed to know the answer interrupted, Haddad walked out of the meeting.
"Looking around this room, there are a lot of hard feelings about this issue," said Prager after Haddad's exit. "But we can only deal with the future."
At the start of the meeting, Prager expressed doubts about the district's budget due to lack of details.
Interim Superintendent of Schools Anthony Bent told Prager the fiscal 2015 budget was the administration's budget and that the School Committee "did not own it" until it voted to adopt it at their meeting the next day.
In the meantime, said Bent, the administration decided to go with the budget as it was formulated by the previous administration with the shortfall included.
Prager zeroed in on wages and salaries.
"We're on an exponential growth here," Prager said as he compared spending at Groton-Dunstable with other communities.
Prager asked for about $650,000 in the school budget set aside for contingencies.
"There's no way we could run this budget without a contingency," said Giger.
"I don't think we have enough contingency in the budget," reiterated Giger.
But Prager insisted the Finance Committee would not accept the school numbers at face value saying he needed to understand where the budget was, where it is and where it is going.
"It's called a projected budget," said Prager.
Selectman Jack Petropoulos suggested delegates from the Finance Committee meet with school officials but Giger said, "we don't have the resources." He suggested the Finance Committee present its questions in writing.
But Prager said such a process would inhibit discussion and only raise more questions than the written responses would answer.
That had been his understanding of the March 4 meeting, said Prager, to spend several hours asking questions and delving into the intricacies of the school budget.
"Is this an interrogation?" asked Giger.
"No, it's a collaboration," said Prager adding that the burden was on the School Committee. If committee members refused, then Prager said that he would "have a problem with that."
"But it's not us against you," Prager said.
"I think it's reasonable to ask for projections but it's not as important as getting the numbers for 2015," said Petropoulos, following Giger's objection to Haddad's query on whether the district would be satisfied with the $1.5 million his plan would raise.
"Our goal between 2014 and 2015 is not to lose ground," said School Committee Chairman Allison Manugian of district spending.
If the review process was to move forward, said Bent, members should not expect to conduct a "complete overhaul" of the schools' budget process.
"We've got apples and oranges all over the place" with "everybody cherry picking the numbers," Bent complained.
Finance Committee member Robert Hargraves asked about the need for multiple assistant principals in all the schools.
"The times have changed with more pressure on principals," said Bent. "It's not your father's Oldsmobile."
Bent insisted Groton-Dunstable needed its administrators because it was in competition with countries like China and South Korea to produce students suited for a global marketplace.
A follow-up joint session was scheduled for March 10.