GROTON -- Anxious to douse a spreading fire of rumor, town officials appeared before members of the Groton-Dunstable Regional School Committee to calm fears that a proposed budget for fiscal 2014 left no room for needed spending on education.
"Schools are a priority of mine," assured Town Manager Mark Haddad in opposition to concerns raised by an editorial in a local newspaper that warned residents the town's budget for next year would be laying a "trap" for taxpayers. "At no time did we take all available funds to pay for a new fire station."
The charge that Haddad's proposed municipal budget for fiscal 2014 would leave nothing extra for schools due to plans to build a new Center Fire Station was first raised in a local newspaper which went on to say that residents would be left with the prospect of having to pass a "general override" that would raise taxes permanently in order to pay for increasing school expenses.
"Here is where the trap is laid," stated the editorial. "Proposed funding for the fire station is to be accomplished by using all of the funding capacity under the levy limit. If the schools need substantial additional funding and no more taxing capacity remains under the prop 2 1/2 levy limit, the only way to raise additional funds will be through a vote to override.
According to Board of Selectmen Chairman Stuart Schulman, who was in attendance at the School Committee's meeting of Jan. 9, concerned residents had begun questioning the newspaper's position, forcing Haddad to meet with school officials to explain the actual situation.
Appearing before the School Committee at the top of its agenda, Haddad walked through his proposed town budget for fiscal 2014, stressing that not only would taxes not rise as a result of paying for the new fire station, but that when all was said and done, the budget would still fall short of reaching the town's levy limit by some $500,000.
In fact, as in past years, the town manager said his budget sets aside the 2 1/2 percent increase in tax collection allowed by law for use by the schools, both Groton-Dunstable and Nashoba Valley Tech.
"So when that editorial said that we were using every available dollar to finance the fire station, it was wrong," concluded Haddad. "At not time did we take all available funds to pay for the fire station."
Speaking of a multiyear forecast showing town spending going into the future, Haddad told School Committee members that he stood by them.
"We're pretty comfortable with these projections," said the town manager.
Still, school officials were leery about funding being available for expenses that might go beyond a level serviced budget of their own. A recent push to improve technology in the schools is expected to cost money not accounted for in the district's current budget.
"Groton will work with you to find those dollars," promised Haddad, noting that the town would be constrained in what it could do by what Dunstable was willing to pitch in. "But there's a lot of things we can do."
What Groton is not doing, concluded Haddad, is building a new fire station "on the back" of the school district.
"A flat budget is not sustainable," warned School Committee member Jon Sjoberg, adding that the schools would need more money some day.
"It's a bit confusing," said fellow committee member James Frey of the question regarding the availability of funds in 2014. "I, for one, am satisfied that the way you're going will not impact the schools. There's no danger here to school funding."
But the subject of adequate funding for the district in a time of continuing fiscal hardship prompted committee member John Giger to revisit the question of creating a stabilization fund for the district that could help prevent the need for unpopular overrides.
It was a question that officials on both sides of the table expected to discuss further in upcoming meetings aimed specifically at the school budget for fiscal 2014.
Also at its Jan. 9 meeting, the School Committee:
* Voted to approve a field trip for the high school's band and chorus to Pennsylvania's Hershey Park and city of Philadelphia to compete with other schools. The trip is expected to include more than 100 students as well as chaperones who will depart Groton on May 2 and return on May 5.
* Were given a briefing by accountability director Kerry Clery on how the superintendent's evaluation would be conducted. According to Clery, the evaluation would follow the same lines set down for teachers involving multiple steps, including personal goal setting, review on how those goals had been implemented, collection of evidence that implementation had been set in motion, and assessment on overall performance and outcomes. Clery then invited committee members to participate in a workshop in order to familiarize themselves with the process.