GROTON — The first day of school may not be a joyful one for many returning students, but for members of the Groton-Dunstable Regional School Committee it proved to be one bearing good tidings from the direction of the federal government.
The welcome news was delivered at the committee’s meeting held last week by Gerry Martin, the district’s new director of business and finance, who informed members that the school system had been awarded a grant of $502,962 to be applied to fiscal 2011.
The information was timely and most welcome for a district whose administration struggled putting together a budget for 2011 at a time of declining revenues and deep cutbacks in the state’s local-aid spending. As a result, many services and programs had to be cut or trimmed back and teachers laid off.
According to School Superintendent Joseph Mastrocola, the administration was analyzing the best way to spend the latest infusion of cash, but retaining teaching staff would likely have priority.
“We need to use this money judiciously,” Mastrocola cautioned committee members at their meeting of Sept. 1.
The money, said Martin, need not be all used at once, and was not tied to any specific programs but could be paid out over time.
But before any of it was spent, Mastrocola said it would have to be seen how it could fit into the long-term picture of the district’s needs and to him, that meant mostly “teaching and learning” programs and keeping class size down.
“There are a lot of different components to this,” Mastrocola said.
Meanwhile, time and the district’s academic schedule moved on with the first day of classes for elementary students taking place Sept. 1 and the high school the next day.
In reporting how the first week of school went, the superintendent told committee members that enrollment at the Boutwell School came to 79, Florence Roche 563, Swallow Union 345, at the middle school 934, and the high school 883.
With projections indicating that the district can expect to see declining enrollment over the next few years at least, Mastrocola said that he would be reviewing class sizes in the district, a subject that bore on a decision by the School Committee at its meeting of July 22 not to allow school choice at the district’s kindergarten level.
The subject was revisited last week when committee member Berta Erickson asked that the earlier decision be reconsidered, objecting to the quick manner in which it was reached and the consequent loss of more than $10,000 in choice money when two students were turned away from attending the district’s kindergarten.
Arguing that the extra money was sorely needed by the district, Erickson also noted that with an average class size of 22-23 students and sometimes less, there was room in the upper grades for more out of district students.
But being out of district was exactly what a majority of committee members objected to. To them, out-of-town parents who sent their children to Groton-Dunstable’s kindergarten usually intended for the students to attend the system all the way through high school. If that was the likely intention, then those parents should do as others have done and move into Groton or Dunstable and pay their share of taxes.
Other arguments against allowing choice at the kindergarten level was that the district did not know how crowded classes might become in later years.
Committee member Alison Manugian suggested that there were plenty of kindergartens available outside the district, and that anyone sending their child to Groton-Dunstable’s kindergarten was merely “gaming the system,” trying to get a foot in the door for limited school-choice slots in the first grade.
In the end, a majority of members voted to uphold their previous decision, and not to allow school choice for the district’s kindergarten.
Finally last week, committee members voted to approve a privately sponsored high school pep band for the football team.
According to music director Timothy Savoy, the whole thing has been “student driven,” including raising the $4,000 needed to cover the cost of sheet music, percussion instruments, and a stipend for himself for taking on the task of overseeing the group.
Savoy told committee members that an initial band camp was held the week of Aug. 23, and hopes were high that the new band could make its debut on Sept. 10 when the football team plays its first home game of the season.
The band director said that so far, 47 students have expressed interest in joining the band.
The School Committee’s next meeting is Sept. 22.