GROTON -- Despite enrollment that continues to decline, administrators for the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District said they plan to submit a budget for fiscal 2014 that includes increased spending.
The news came at a meeting held Dec. 5 between school and town officials intended to introduce fiscal planners from Groton and Dunstable to elements being considered by district planners that will go into their budget formulation process that began Nov. 30 with the submission of preliminary departmental budgets.
In attendance at the Dec. 5 briefing were Groton town manager Mark Haddad and members of the town's Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee as well as their counterparts from Dunstable.
Characterizing the district's budget as a "behemoth," interim school superintendent Anthony Bent opened the meeting saying that he estimated new spending in 2014 could rise by 2-3 percent.
Chairman of the School Committee's Budget Subcommittee James Frey called a proposed increase in spending next year "most likely."
According to the district's business manager Gerry Martin, a 2 percent increase over the fiscal 2013 budget of $34,891,906 would come to about $700,000 to be shared between Groton and Dunstable.
Currently, Groton's share of school expenses covers 45.75 percent of the total and Dunstable's 12.38 percent.
Bent attempted to temper his warning that spending increases will be coming by pointing out that the district's budget had been level funded for the past two years, an achievement for which former superintendent Joseph Mastrocola had been extolled by town officials.
For next year however, Bent said that spending would need to increase if the schools were to keep up with the demands of technology. The superintendent said that the schools needed to keep pace with "state of the art" technology but that they were "not there yet."
Spending in the area of technology, said Bent, would be two pronged with one concentrating on instructional support and another on "infrastructure." Currently, the district employs three people dedicated to tech support but they were said to be not enough.
"The first budget that emerges tells the community what the district needs," said Bent, explaining what will likely be an FY14 budget that includes increased spending. "We'll start from there but it won't necessarily be where it ends up."
"We must be responsible but we're not going to begin (the budget process) by cutting," concluded Bent adding that whatever budget is finally submitted, it needed to be a "credible" one.
Because of the reality of fixed costs, Bent said a level funded budget actually meant a decrease in services but whatever happened, he did not intend to see a reduction in force (layoffs) except through retirement or employees leaving to seek work elsewhere.
Not dismissing Bent's intentions out of hand, Finance Committee member Steve Webber nevertheless warned him that the FinCom has traditionally demanded great detail in any budget the district intends to submit for review.
In addition, Webber also cautioned the superintendent that if changes or additions were to be made to the district's curriculum, such changes would need to be explained in full.
Webber's counterpart on Dunstable's FinCom, Kevin Welch, also reminded school officials that they should not lose sight of the fact that there continues to be great uncertainty among the public on the issue of taxation citing specifically unknowns dealing with the requirements of the new national health care system for which the IRS recently released 150+ pages of new regulations and taxes and repercussions of the "fiscal cliff" which threatens to raise taxes across the board.
With the conclusion of the Dec. 5 briefing, town officials were given a time line governing the district's budget formulation process which will begin in earnest later this month and next with more meetings between town and school representatives.
With estimated local aid figures in hand by the end of January, a first draft of the proposed school budget for fiscal 2014 will be made public and formal submission to the School Committee on Feb. 13.
The School Committee is expected to vote adopting a budget for 2014 on Feb. 27 with residents in both Groton and Dunstable having the final say with votes at their respective town meetings to be held next spring.