GROTON -- At a joint meeting between members of the Groton-Dunstable Regional School Committee, and the Groton and Dunstable Boards of Selectmen and Finance Committees, school officials explained the discovery of a recent shortfall in the district's budget and measures being taken to make it up.

Held Jan. 8, the meeting also included a report by a private firm hired to go through the district's books to help pinpoint exactly where accounts went wrong.

Although the oversight was initially blamed on inexperience with the operation of new accounting software, in the end it seemed that the error was made at least partially in calculations dealing with contract negotiations.

The shortfall was first discovered late last year after district officials completed a review of the 2013 budget and began efforts to make up the difference through a combination of identifying sources of new revenue and cuts in spending.

The approved school operating budget for fiscal 2013 was $35,200,000 but a review revealed that total obligations by the district came to $36,204,212 a difference of $1,004,000.

Initial cuts totaling $126,095 were immediately authorized by the administration bringing obligations down to $36,078,116.

At the same time, other sources of revenue were sought out including $263,533 taken from the schools' Excess & Deficiencies account totaling $440,548 in all.

That reduced the difference to $464,485.

But with only $350,000 remaining in the E & D account, it was not clear where the rest of the money would come from short of more cuts in spending which could mean layoffs of personnel.

One thing was certain, said Board of Selectmen member Anna Eliot, it could not be made up with the use of an override.

Eliot said that board members warned school officials that such a course could not be justified simply to correct an oversight in accounting.

Town officials also warned the School Committee to keep in mind the annual budget in the years ahead so that the current shortfall would not have any impact on future spending.

In the meantime, school officials reported that the state's Department of Revenue (DOR) had certified the district's budget for 2013 and approved the use of E & D funds to help pay for the unforeseen overspending in fiscal 2014 with some carryover to 2015.

Immediately following the joint meeting, the School Committee held its regular meeting where NESDEC (New England School Development Council) representative Donald Kennedy presented the results of an enrollment study conducted at the behest of superintendent Anthony Bent.

Declining enrollment over the past several years and its potential impact on revenue and spending has drawn the concern of school officials.

Since 2007, the overall enrollment of in-district students has declined by 10 percent with Kennedy reporting that the trend will likely continue over the next 10 years.

At the same time, Kennedy admitted that it was difficult to predict how things would go that far into the future.

The NESDEC representative told committee members that he based his conclusions on the number of building permits issued and homes sold over the years in Groton and Dunstable which revealed that the number of Dunstable students would decline thus placing a greater burden on Groton in helping to fund the school district.

The decline in enrollment, explained Kennedy was partially due to a regional reduction in the overall populations of New England and Midwestern states as younger residents flee to states where the cost of living is lower.

A curious outcome of the survey, said Kennedy, was the fact that although the populations of both Groton and Dunstable had increased in recent years, the number of students they send to the district had declined. That was explained by an older population whose median age was between 37 and 43 years old.

The good news, said Kennedy, was that studies showed that in 10 years, the current generation would reach a point where families would begin to "recycle" and a new wave of children enter the school system bringing up the size of the student body. 

Also at the Jan. 8 meeting, committee chairman Allison Manugian reported that Screening Committee had received 25 applications for the job of superintendent. After interviews were conducted, the committee selected two finalists to go before the School Committee.

Hoping to take over the top spot from Bent, who has been serving as interim superintendent since the resignation of Joseph Mastrocola in 2012, Theodore Friend currently works as the superintendent of the Sutton public schools while Kristin Rodriguez serves as assistant superintendent in Chelmsford.

Manugian said the School Committee would next meet to prepare questions for the pair and arrange appointments to visit the candidates' school systems before scheduling final interviews.

"It was a very constructive process," said committee member James Frey of the Screening Committee's work. "It went very well."

Finally, committee members met with and congratulated high school students Celina Antonellis and Sisi Liu for receiving Certificates of Academic Excellence awarded by the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents to students who display above average scholarship and athletic achievement.