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NEWS: Groton & Dunstable Selectmen Scour For Cuts To Help Schools [with video]

In an effort to have a full understanding of the serious issues with the Regional School Department budget shortfall, and to share concerns and financial plans and status, the Groton Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee met with the Dunstable Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee along with the Groton Dunstable Regional School Committee to determine where each was in their planning.

Selectmen Chairman Peter Cunningham said that he was hoping to get input on how the School Committee planned to arrive at their general number.

Fin Com Chairman Jay Prager stressed that the municipal budget has to be sustainable and that it is an agonizing appraisal of what to cut adding "None of this is a free lunch. It adds to taxes and not everyone can pay those taxes." Town Manager Mark Haddad advised that if the town of Groton taxes to the max,"the average tax bill would go up over $400.

Dunstable advised that they are still in data gathering mode to see what they can do to about the $674 assessment to their town and wanted to know if officials felt that they were in 'override mode'.

Budget Forecast Request

Selectman Josh Degen said that there is an effort to scrub the numbers in Groton without getting into an override. "I'm not sure that I would support an override. It goes on the taxes forever." He asked the School Committee for budget projections for FY15, FY16 and FY17. "We need to know if this is a band aid on a gaping wound." Cunningham supported Degen's request for budget projections from the schools, adding "We need to know what is happening in the ensuing years."

Selectman Stuart Schulman also concurred, adding that he wants a really firm understanding of what happened and what to expect over the next five years.

School Committee Chairman Alison Manugian responded that she hears the concerns but felt part of the difficulty in funding is the method that is adjusted by the state. She said it was important to talk about what sustainable means and that it may mean an override.

Manugian said that they could project over the next several years but was not sure that it would be credible, suggesting that the School Committee could look at it and provide some generalizations, but it would be just that, generalizations.

Prager stated clearly that he "didn't buy it" that the school department can't project a budget, noting that there is a track record of state aid and it is possible to make reasonable projections.

Override Discussion

It was clear that many of the town officials present did not have the willingness to bring an override forward to voters that could have a significant impact on tax bills. A representative from Dunstable stressed that no one there would go for an override, adding that the town does not understand what happened and suggested that a big part of it was special education expenses.

Selectman Josh Degen encouraged the School Committee to use $250K of their $500K E& D Fund with the goal of helping out both communities. He suggested that anything the School Committee can do to keep out of an override, there would be a better chance to get what the children need.

Chairman Alison Manugian told officials she would like to ask for two items. One is to "ask to transfer money from the town's Stabilization Fund to the district so that the control would move from the municipal side to the district," and the second was that if there was a "potential override that it be a shared override....some for the school, some for the Police and Sargisson beach..."

Haddad pointed out to her that in fact Groton is already working on those reductions with the Fin Com. "We are doing all we can to avoid this." Manugian responded that she wanted to "look at this override as a shared risk."

Schulman said that asking "citizens to shell out big bucks to help, you are going to have to convince citizens that you are not coming back year after year....A override is a high increase to people's tax bills.

The Audit

School Board member John Giger explained what a forensic audit is - especially to those hoping to find out what definitively happened. He said the audit is an annual audit that is designed to ensure that the state sent to the state is correct data at the end of the year. He cautioned, "This is not a big 10 audit."

His colleague, Jim Frey pointed out that a normal end of the year audit does not look at controls. When the problems in FY13 were identified after the closure of the books, the towns were told of the problem. "The human errors did not allow the controls to do their job," he said.

Regional School District Business Manager Jared Stanton stressed that the audit that is being conducted is not a forensic audit, which he said is done in cases of fraud and costs thousands of dollars. Rather what is being done for an audit is referred to as a 'special audit' to determine what happened. The special audit has been completed he said and the report is almost complete

Special Education

Special Education budget issues were raised and Degen asked about the possibility of bringing students back into the district and providing the services for them. He added that perhaps we could also take special education students into Groton to help pay for some of the costs.

Acting Superintendent Dr. Tony Bent said Degen had a valid point, noting that there is a special program at Swallow Union School for autistic children and a program at the high school. What Degen said is valid, Bent said, adding that this is what schools do in other districts.

Frey pointed out that the costs for Special Education don't show up in the budget due to grants and circuit breakers. "We want to see a complete number for the district but the state doesn't want us to because it is a scary number." Prager said he wanted to know what the SPED costs are to the town. Frey responded that the amount could be $5M for FY15 for Special Education, but taking out transportation and teachers, the amount the town pays is about $2.1 M.

Groton Herald

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