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GROTON — On the heels of a particularly difficult budget formulation process, followed by the resounding defeat of a proposed override in both Groton and Dunstable, members of the Groton-Dunstable Regional School Committee were warned recently that more painful hikes in spending were likely in the future unless measures are taken to cut expenses.

The grim news was presented by director of budget and finance Timothy Sheehan who told members of the school committee that they could expect increases of at least 10 percent in assessments for both towns every year “for the foreseeable future.”

The result of cuts in local aid from the state, along with rising fixed expenses such as fuel, electricity, insurance and especially contractual obligations, the news of larger budget requests did not altogether come as a surprise. School officials faced much the same problem in preparing the district’s most recent budget.

In that case, the budget came in with a 10 percent increase that school officials claimed was necessary to maintain the district’s academic standards. To meet the need for more cash, the district chose to pursue an unpopular override measure in order to raise the $1.2 million needed to cover additional expenses.

However, voters in both Dunstable and Groton refused to accept higher property taxes to pay for the higher school costs.

Warned by Finance Committee Chairman Jay Prager at a recently-concluded Groton Town Meeting that if approved the increases would become permanent, the figures presented by Sheehan last week seemed to bear out that prediction.

“It’s a very sobering picture, no doubt about it,” Sheehan told committee members. He added that unless the increase in spending is kept within a range of 1 percent to 8 percent, the need for an override would be nearly automatic.

The news immediately raised questions from committee members about finding new ways for the district to spent its money. Committee member Berta Erickson acknowledged that to do so would be “hard” and would demand “innovative” approaches to the budget.

Committee chairman Chuck McKinney said that he would “love” to see Sheehan talk to Superintendent Dr. Alan Genovese about what to do to address the problem.

“There’s a lot of things that can be done between now and the fall to work on revenue,” said committee member Forrest Buzan.

Buzan called for scrutiny of personnel costs, which comprise the single largest component of the district’s expenses. He suggested talks with the district’s various unions about how both sides can do things differently to save money. Buzan suggested, for instance, that health care costs could be shifted from the schools’ responsibility to that of the unions.

“Otherwise, these costs will never come under control,” declared Buzan.

“We have to get away from traditional ways of doing things,” agreed Erickson. “We have to be more creative.”

Superintendent Genovese advised that perhaps the district should ask town officials for suggestions on how to proceed. Genovese said that after the recent campaign for passage of the override, the administration will take a closer look at the changing fiscal situation.

Although the district’s operating budget for 2008 with the override amount comes to $30.4 million if the schools’ debt is also included, the total would rise to approximately $36 million.

For 2007, the district’s operating budget rested at $27.9 million.

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