Meeting: Ed. budget uptick good idea but hard sell, says Haddad


GROTON — At a joint meeting between officials from both Groton and Dunstable, talk about the Education Department’s budget for fiscal 2014 soon became dominated by a proposed increase in spending for technology.

Although Groton-Dunstable Regional School Committee member James Frey cautioned that talk about an estimated $780,000 in one-time spending on technology was only in the discussion phase, more likely a lower sum of $300,000 could be included in the schools’ operating budget for fiscal 2014.

Should the lower figure be included in the operating budget, it would likely be covered with increased overall spending that the school’s administration expects to come in between 2.6 percent and 3.1 percent.

However, if school and town officials agree, the larger one-time figure, too large to be included in the operating budget, could be sought as a debt exclusion.

A debt exclusion, a one-time payment or a payment made over a number of years with a definite end date, would need to go to the ballot box for direct voting by residents of both towns.

“This is basic, basic, basic,” stressed interim Superintendent Anthony Bent at the Jan. 17 meeting between district and town officials that included selectmen as well as members of the Finance Committee. Bent referred to the type of technology and tech support needed for day-to-day operation of schools in the 21st century and nothing fancy.

But despite Bent’s insistence that the increased spending was necessary, officials were aware that the case for a debt exclusion would be a difficult one to make for a public already overburdened with taxation and poised to be hit yet again by Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal to increase the state’s income taxes.

“I think the proposal makes a lot of sense, but it’s going to be a tough sell,” said Town Manager Mark Haddad.

Haddad went on to explain that Groton’s share of the $780,000 would come to $536,000, adding a one-time tax increase of $128 per property owner in town should the single-year payment option be chosen.

That figure would come on top of an estimated $164 increase as a result of the town’s fiscal 2014 budget for a grand total of $292.

“That’s a major increase,” noted Haddad.

“It’s a real challenge,” agreed Dunstable official Walter Alterisio, suggesting that the district’s high achievement rate, which was reported that night as being among the 98th percentile in MCAS testing with 95 percent of the graduates going on to college, would beg the question in voters’ minds as to how more technology could possibly improve on that record.

Furthermore, warned Alterisio, multiple schemes to pay for the new technology would only sow confusion among residents and, as experience has shown, confusion spells defeat at Town Meeting.

School Committee member John Giger urged those attending the Jan. 17 meeting to come up with a plan that was the most “palatable” to voters and work with town officials to craft something that would do that.

If the district could not find a way to work with town officials to package the proposal in a way that was understandable to voters, the whole thing was not going to fly, added Frey.

The meeting opened with a review of this year’s spending, with Bent showing town officials how much less the district was spending than other school systems in Massachusetts. Covering everything from administrative costs to professional development, technology was pointed out as a major area where the district lagged behind the state average by $138 to $424.

“We really cut back,” added Frey of spending that had been brought under control over the past two years by departed superintendent Joseph Mastrocola. “We cut back to the bone in the last several years.”

However, the district’s argument that its spending was below the state average was undermined by statistics showing that student enrollment for the district had not only declined in recent years, but showed no sign of stopping.

“We’ve had a slow decline that’s not expected to reverse in the next several years,” admitted Bent.

With such decline and a current budget of $34,891,906, officials at the Jan. 17 meeting realized that any argument for increased spending for the operating budget or technology, would have to be made very convincingly if it were to be accepted by residents.

That argument would likely be more difficult in Dunstable, where tax collection is at the levy limit unlike Groton where it is not.

But not giving up on the idea of a debt exclusion to pay for technology, including new equipment, added employees for tech support, and bringing wireless service to all of the district’s school buildings, officials ended their meeting with plans to further consider the issue in future gatherings as planning moved ahead with the district’s budget for fiscal 2014.