GROTON – Voters in Groton rejected a proposed override Thursday, dealing a massive blow to the regional school district’s attempts to fill what it says are a number of crucial needs and also ensuring some cuts to the town’s municipal budget.
However, in Dunstable, where key town services were tied to the override passing, residents approved the question by a 70-vote margin.
Groton’s override failed by a vote of 1,254 to 906, or about 58 percent to 42 percent, according to Town Clerk Michael Bouchard. That tally represents a turnout of about 27 percent, which was somewhat lower than the first-round override that was on the ballot at May town elections.
Although more votes were cast in total, the first-round override also failed 58 percent to 42 percent.
Thursday was a special election on a second-round version of overrides since the larger amount had already been rejected in May.
The new proposal was intended as a compromise to get the schools and towns the money they requested without overly straining residents, but voters decided the pricetag were not palatable.
Groton’s $812,013 override would have added about $204 to the average annual tax bill.
At their most recent Town Meeting, Groton voters approved two versions of the budget, one dependent on the override and one in case the override failed.
That ensures the town government will stay open even though voters rejected the override Thursday.
The vote also sent the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District scrambling.
The district’s budget was dependent on revamped overrides passing in both towns, and since the votes came on the final day of the fiscal year, the district does not have an approved budget in time for the July 1 start of the next fiscal year.
Because of that, the district will be forced to operate on a budget roughly one-12th the current size until it can have voters approve a new one.
The exact size depends on what the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s commissioner rules, but it would likely be between one-twelfth last year’s budget and one-twelfth the budget approved at this year’s Town Meeting.
At a last-minute meeting following the votes Thursday, members of the School Committee expressed frustration with the results.
“Twice now, the voters in Groton have sent a message, and I don’t think it’s a good message for us,” said Chairman Jeff Kubick. “I’m disappointed.”
Some members said they were frustrated at a perceived lack of support from municipal officials in Groton.
“I’m incensed at some of the leadership on our town side for the way this went about,” said member Peter Cronin. “I think it speaks volumes about their values, their priorities, their commitment to education in this town.”
The School Committee did not make any final decision Thursday night – that will come later, once the members have time to wade through the results and options.
There are four more meetings scheduled in July, starting next Wednesday night, where members will continue their discussions.
Two major options exist: The district could lower its budget to match the no-override budget approved by voters at Town Meeting, which would only allot an extra $100,000 or so toward the needs assessment.
That’s enough money for one or two full-time positions – a far cry from the 39 full-time positions the district wanted to fill with the first override proposals.
The School Committee can also call for a districtwide Super Town Meeting, where it would ask a single body of voters from both towns to approve a budget that would be binding.
If that passed, Groton would have to cut from its municipal budget to find money for that new school budget.
In the meantime, while the committee figures out the best way forward, the district will operate on a one-12th budget. However, Kubick noted that expenses are significantly lower during July and August: School is not in session, and most teachers do not receive paychecks during the summer months.
Because the override failed, Groton will see about $120,000 cut from its municipal budget, which includes funding for an IT position, Highway Department staffing and lifeguards at Sargisson Beach as well as employee benefit reserves.
In Dunstable, the override passed by a vote of 395 to 326.
The stakes there were high: before the election, town officials said they would have to make “devastating cuts,” particularly to police and fire staffing, if the override failed.
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