GROTON -- "At a minimum there was negligence and at a maximum there was incompetence," Selectman Joshua Degen told the Groton-Dunstable Regional School Committee at a special meeting held Jan. 22.
Degen was responding to a shortfall in the district's operating budget amounting to millions of dollars that, if no new sources of revenue are found, will likely have to come from layoffs, cancellation of programs or even closure of school buildings.
There has also been talk of a Proposition 2 1/2 override against which some residents spoke at the same meeting.
How do members of the School Committee hold themselves accountable for the oversights that led to the shortfall, Degen went on to ask. Who do they hold accountable if not themselves?
The comments were among many strong words leveled at the School Committee by town officials from both Groton and Dunstable grappling with an imbalance in the district's budget that could leave up to $2.5 million to deal with in 2015 alone.
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 and Deficiencies account totaling $440,548.
That reduced the difference to $464,485 for 2014.
But due to unfunded obligations that rolled forward with each year, plus built-in increases expected for utilities, insurance and union contracts, fiscal 2015 looked to be challenge in and of itself.
According to committee member James Frey, who opened the Jan. 22 meeting by bringing officials up to date on the issue, the district has applied for up to $100,000 emergency aid from the state, has placed discretionary spending on hold, and is talking to vendors about ways more money can be saved.
"We're doing anything we can do to bring in more revenue and savings," assured Frey, adding that a priority was to preserve existing educational programs.
When asked by Degen why the district had not used $350,000 still remaining in its E&D account, Frey said it was needed as a "cushion" against the 2015 budget.
Noting the ongoing decline in the district's student enrollment, which has gone down 10 percent over the years, Finance Committee Chairman Jay Prager asked about a simultaneous rise in payroll.
"That's a pretty dramatic increase," said Prager.
"We've got a huge problem that's getting bigger, and bigger and bigger until the rabbit comes out of the hat and it explodes," said fellow FinCom member Bud Robertson, wondering why nothing had been done about the climbing figures. "I don't understand how we got this far off."
"We had no idea this was going on," returned Frey, admitting that the whole situation reflected badly on the School Committee.
Again calling attention to the wage-inflation problem, Prager asked how the committee couldlook at their budgets and not see the problem coming.
School Committee member Jon Sjoberg explained that while the district was in negotiations with unions, they based projections on payroll rates from the previous contractual period, which ended up being lower than under new agreements.
Committee Chairman Allison Manugian said what the whole thing will come down to is what the community will support. But if it decides the current budget is unsustainable, it would likely mean layoffs.
The question of blame was not black and white, continued Manugian, because many of the people who were around when past budgets were formulated had left the district. Ultimately, however, the School Committee itself was responsible.
What was needed, said Robertson, was more control over the budget process.
While some changes to the process had already been implemented, replied Manugian, any more will have to await the outcome of an audit whose results are due at the end of February.
Calling the question the "800 pound gorilla in the room," Prager wanted to know about 2015, projections for which were not included in graphs supplied by the district to illustrate the fiscal issues being discussed.
"We're looking at a level-serviced budget," said Manugian of plans to tackle what was described as $2.5 million in liabilities for the next year.
Even if both towns tax residents to their levy limits as allowed by state law, said Degen, it would not be enough to cover the amount coming due in fiscal 2015. Did the district have any plans to address the shortfall?
School Committee members then ran through a litany of possible measures, including cutting sports, arts and foreign language instruction; personnel layoffs; and closure of school buildings.
In addition to local officials, a score of parents helped pack the high school library room where the Jan. 22 meeting was held and had concerns of their own.
Meanwhile, the School Committee planned to continue the discussion about the shortfall and how to deal with it at a pair of informational meetings Jan. 28 and Jan. 30, at which time the public will have a chance to have its voice heard on the issue.