GROTON -- Unveiling their proposed budget for fiscal 2015 at a public hearing Wednesday, Groton-Dunstable Regional School officials were met with skepticism from many of the 200 residents who attended the event at the middle school's performing arts center.
Residents wanted to understand the reason for a $2.7 million shortfall in the fiscal 2015 budget and express support for programs threatened by the money shortage.
"They made an error in the budget that went on for three years and now potentially, we might have to cut programs," said resident Annie McGinty. "It makes me so upset. I'm concerned about the future."
"I think they have to be held responsible," added resident John Kelly. "My biggest concern is that I don't think they have their stories straight."
One of the big questions are seeming incongruities in the proposed budget, including number of students and class size, as expressed by resident Marlena Gilbert. Gilbert has led a drive to subsidize the schools' arts program by charging willing parents a fee.
Gilbert suggested the administration could not be trusted with the money collected.
She told School Committee members she would rather see money given to a designated fees-based arts program than have herself taxed for it with only the hope that the funding eventually "filtered down" to her children.
The feeling of distrust has grown since it was revealed the school district miscalculated the amount of money it had and overspent, creating an initial imbalance of $1,004,000.
The source of the problem was discovered late last year, when it was shown that the approved school-operating budget for fiscal 2013 stood at $35,200,000, while total obligations by the district came to $36,204,212.
Initial cuts eliminated the shortfall that year while further efforts, including more cuts and new sources of revenue, reduced the shortfall for 2014 to $464,485.
But since the initial problem with the budget had a rollover effect in subsequent years, a major problem remained for 2015.
For that year, according to the district's proposed budget, Groton would be assessed $1.9 million and Dunstable $674,579 over their assessments in fiscal 2014.
The bottom line for the district's proposed budget for fiscal 2015 comes to $36,436,892.
While admitting it included "a very large increase to the two towns," interim Superintendent Anthony Bent still described the budget as "lean," with the administration having taken a "conservative approach" to its formulation.
In coming up with the new budget, Assistant Superintendent Kerry Clery said a number of goals were kept in mind, including maintenance of programs and continued support for technology, the federal Common Core standards, and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a multi-state initiative concentrating on measuring student progress in mathematics and English-language arts as they relate to college and career readiness.
Administrators said enrollment in the district, which has been declining for years, would continue to do so, with 21 fewer students expected in 2015.
Slight reductions in staffing have been taken or are planned, mostly through attrition, but also directly in the form of layoffs as high-school principal Michael Mastrullo told residents at the meeting.
Mastrullo had been defending the layoffs of four employees to those who wanted to know why a part-time drama instructor had been fired.
"We value the arts and recognize its importance," said Mastrullo, but said cuts had to be made and the part-time position affected only after-school programs.
Some parents and students were out before the public hearing handing out bright-orange labels that supporters of the drama program wore during the meeting.
"I think that the focus of all this should be on possible solutions," said student Brent Emerle. "We understand that there is a problem but it seems that things aren't being done."
Groton officials are scrambling to find a way to come up with the funding needed to balance the district's books with a meeting Feb. 22 between the town manager and the Finance Committee to hammer something out.
"The hearing was useful but they need to come up with some sort of long-term plan," said resident Jeff Demers. "They need to look at other school districts that are doing well. They should pursue best practices in that regard."
"It's normal to have cuts like this and there are always those who struggle to see the big picture," said Dunstable resident Peter Cronin. "Unfortunately, this meeting was dominated by those worried about cuts in drama. But it was good to see people coming out with ideas like the one to charge fees to pay for the arts. I'm not sure if the true cause of the shortfall was explained."
"It was an informative meeting but I was disappointed with some of the options," said resident Gary Emerle. "I think everybody understands there's a problem. They've got to be fiscally responsible."
The deadline for the School Committee to give its final approval to the fiscal 2015 school budget is March 12.