GROTON -- The Groton-Dunstable Regional School Committee got an earful when hundreds of parents and other residents filled the performing arts center at the middle school for a public hearing on a budget shortfall that officials have said could involve cuts in staff and programs and even closure of buildings.
"I'm not satisfied," declared resident Gary Roy following the Jan. 29 meeting. "It looks to me as if the district has overspent and now has to ask for more money."
Although most residents attending the public hearing seemed more concerned with cuts in programming and increased class sizes than spending, many still registered complaints that greater scrutiny of the district's finances should have been ongoing by the School Committee.
"We did not do our job, the job you elected us to do," admitted committee member James Frey, characterizing the committee as having "dropped the ball."
Frey then offered his apologies to parents.
"It's hard not to get emotional about the whole thing," sympathized resident Elizabeth Hawes. "The hearing was helpful though because now we understand what caused the shortfall. But I didn't expect to come up with solutions tonight."
"I'm concerned about what cuts might be coming next year," added fellow resident Heather Vandermillen. "I was disappointed that there was no information about next year's budget. But the meeting was very worthwhile anyway. Now we have to decide what can be done to fix the problem.
Like other parents at the meeting, Vandermillen did not want to see teachers lose their jobs, not least because of the air of unreliability it would cast over Groton-Dunstable when others came looking for teaching positions in the district.
At the heart of the issue is a shortfall in the district's budget discovered weeks ago that has since forced officials to cut spending and services in order to make ends meet. So far, they have managed to bring fiscal 2013's share of the shortfall down to zero but subsequent years still present a challenge. Late last year, the approved school operating budget for fiscal 2013 stood at $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 were able to eliminate the shortfall for that year while further efforts, including more cuts and new sources of revenue, were able to reduce the shortfall for 2014 to $464,485.
As reported at the Jan. 29 public hearing, officials continue to chip away at the fiscal 2014 shortfall, but the big question is 2015, when an imbalance of $2.5 million is expected.
"This is a multi-year story," cautioned Frey as he assured parents that for the time being, no more programs or staffing cuts are planned.
That said, Frey added that no numbers are yet available for fiscal 2015. The deadline for the School Committee to adopt a final budget for fiscal 2015 is March 5.
One question that recurred often over the course of the evening was the possibility of an override to help pay for the shortfall. School officials did not dismiss the possibility and many in the audience expressed support for one.
The fear, however, was that in the past, the town at large has been shy of approving such measures.
It was difficult to talk about an override, said one resident, when all people ever hear when there is a money crisis is how teachers will be laid off and the children suffer. Questioning the need for two vice principals at the elementary school, it was suggested that committee members look to the administration for positions to cut.
Waiting for applause to die down, Frey replied that all parts of the district have been considered as areas of potential savings.
"What I'm hearing is the need to clarify the role of administrative positions," said committee Chairwoman Allison Manugian after many in attendance openly wondered if a number of "central office" jobs are really necessary.
In the end, however, most everyone who attended the public hearing agreed that it was a worthwhile exercise.
"I think it was good because it provided information that we needed," said Sharon Considine. "And the more information we have, the better decisions we can make."
"People were able to vent on a very difficult topic," said Mark Fosberry. "They managed to get the issues across very well."
"I think it was great," said Rebecca Erickson. "It was an open forum where everyone had a chance to get more information about the problem. There could have been more detail on the budget though."
But even as work addressing the shortfall is ongoing, district administrators will also be busy crafting a budget for fiscal 2015. To learn more about that, residents can attend a public hearing on the subject scheduled for Feb. 12.