By Hiroko Sato
DUNSTABLE -- A week after Groton voters agreed to pay extra in taxes to help provide more funding for local schools, the $35.7 million school budget remains in limbo. It could remain that way for months if Dunstable voters and the Groton-Dunstable Regional School Committee don't see eye to eye on next year's spending.
The referendum proposal to pay for the $7.7 million Groton has borrowed for its Center Fire Station project through a debt exclusion passed April 1, providing the town a way to gather an additional $1.4 million in school funding if necessary.
The budget won't be finalized, however, until Groton and Dunstable, the two towns served by the School District, agree to the spending plan at Town Meetings.
Normally, both towns build in a 2.5 percent increase for school funding in a new fiscal budget. This year, the School Committee is asking for an 11 percent increase, Dunstable Selectman Walter Alterisio has said. That translates into $1.9 million, of which $1.4 million would be from Groton and the rest would come from Dunstable.
Groton Town Meeting is Monday, April 28, followed by Dunstable Town Meeting on Monday, May 12. The School Committee also has the option to reduce the spending plan it already adopted.
If the budget remains unchanged and if both town meetings adopt it, it would require a tax override for Dunstable because that would be the only way for the town to come up with an additional money beyond the 2.5 percent increase, according to Alterisio.
The amount of the override will be close to $400,000, he said.
If the override fails, the School Committee would have the chance to reconsider its budget and resubmit either the same spending plan or a new one for a reduced amount, according to Groton Selectman Jack Petropoulos. Petropoulos led public forums on the school budget issues and Groton's debt exclusion before the April 1 referendum in Groton. Dunstable would then likely call for a Town Meeting to reconsider the resubmitted spending plan. And if Town Meeting passes the resubmitted budget, Dunstable voters would likely head back to the polls for yet another tax override proposal unless the school budget was drastically reduced or Dunstable came up with a new way to provide more money for school.
If the budget passes in one town and fails in the other, the School Committee would have the chance to reconsider and resubmit the budget. Petropoulos said the town that passes the budget would be able to call for a so-called Super Town Meeting -- a joint Town Meeting in which residents' votes from both towns are tallied. Petropoulos said, however, he did not know at what point in the process such a meeting can be called.
A Super Town Meeting is never a good solution to budget disagreements because it allows one town to take control of the voting outcome, Petropoulos said. For example, Groton voters' opinions would matter more in a super town meeting because the town has more voters than Dunstable.
Whatever happens, Petropoulos said, the two towns must come to an agreement on the school budget by July 1, or the state would take control over district spending.
The state would order both towns to pay 1/12 the fiscal 2014 budget monthly to the School District until a new budget is agreed upon, according to Petropoulos. That would cause a major cash-flow issue for the district, Petropoulos said.
"The School District cannot work like that. It would be very difficult for the School District to operate on one month of revenue at a time," Petropoulos said.
Alterisio has said there still is time until Town Meeting and hopes Dunstable officials and the School Committee will work hard together to find a solution.