GROTON — Gathering to strategize over next month’s town meeting, officials at a special joint meeting between the Finance Committee, Board of Selectmen and School Committee ended up discussing the sustainability of municipal spending into the future.
“We’re here to focus on how to get through town meeting,” FinCom Chairman Gary Green told those in attendance Wednesday.
In particular, town officials want to figure out the best way to approach possible passage of an override measure to support a combined municipal and school budget at town meeting.
Would it be better to vote on a budget and appropriate the money first before seeing if voters would agree to spend the increased funds in the form of an override at the ballot box or vote a contingency budget in case an override does not pass?
To help answer the questions, officials were presented with four scenarios by Town Manager Mark Haddad, and after much discussion, finally settled on the first one. That would ask residents at the April 25 Town Meeting to vote on a combined municipal and school budget.
That budget would include $1.1 million in extra funding for the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District scraped together from cuts in spending on the municipal side.
After that, Town Meeting would continue on May 23 after voters had a chance to decide on a $1.9 million override on Election Day scheduled for May 17.
If the override passes, which would be a permanent annual increase in taxes, the budget that had passed at the April 25 town meeting would stand.
If the override measure fails, voters May 23 would have two choices: vote to approve the budget as presented at the April 25 town meeting and hold new spending at the schools to $1.1 million or pass a budget that still requires the override amount to work.
If the latter, a new date for a second override election must be scheduled by the selectmen and voters asked once again to consider an override.
At a meeting held March 9, the School Committee voted to approve an education budget for fiscal 2017 that came to $40,475,339, up from fiscal 2016’s bottom line of $36,449,830.
The jump in spending was considered necessary by members of the committee as well as the district’s administration following a needs-assessment survey. That survey concluded that a steady cutback in services over the years has left the schools under-funded and under-staffed.
As a result, the district has proposed a plan to hire over 40 new employees, which will account for much of the budget increase.
It was because the increase in spending proposed by the district exceeds the amount the town can spend under Proposition two and a half, that an override becomes necessary. That launched town officials into a search for revenue to make up the difference.
Selectmen are expected to further discuss the chosen scenario at their meeting March 21 before voting whether to place the accompanying override question on the ballot.
In the meantime, a budget timeline handed out by Haddad that extrapolated current spending five years into the future, found that while municipal spending would rise at an annual average of 3.5 percent, school spending was predicted to rise at 4.70 percent every year.
Those numbers, particularly the school numbers, have alarmed town officials who have established a Sustainable Budget Review Committee to find ways to slow down the rate of spending.
Looking at the numbers, Board of Selectmen member Joshua Degen warned that the escalation in spending is “unsustainable.”
Having a 4.7 percent increase in spending every year for schools, observed FinCom member Art Prest, is “a deal killer.”
The key to gaining the public’s trust in the matter, said selectmen Chairman Jack Petropoulos, is for public officials to work diligently on the problem so that when the time comes and overrides are necessary, they can make informed decisions.
“We aren’t having a spending problem,” claimed School Committee member Leslie Lathrop. “We’re having a revenue problem.”
School Committee Chairman Jeffrey Kubick blamed the state for the district’s woes, saying that local aid money for education has been flat for several years, forcing the schools to turn to taxpayers for help.
Fellow committee member Jon Sjoberg said that the definition of sustainability does not have to mean cuts in spending but simply finding other sources of revenue.