GROTON -- The Groton-Dunstable Regional School Committee was briefed on the results of an audit, or independent accountant's report, on what went wrong with the district's finances that lead to a $2.7 million shortfall for fiscal 2015 and were reassured that the shortfall was not due to "material errors, irregularities, or illegal acts."
The summary of the report was given by John Sullivan, accountant for Melanson Heath & Company, certified accountants.
Sullivan assured committee members up front that there was "no missing money" in the district's books as some in the district had believed.
The shortfall 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 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.
But since the initial problem with the budget had a rollover effect in subsequent years, a major problem remained for 2015.
In the meantime, Melanson, Heath & Co. was hired to go through the books to determine what went wrong and to offer recommendations to make sure it did not happen again.
The outside accountants reviewed and analyzed the district's fiscal 2013 budget "to determine the cause of the 2013 deficit;" reviewed the fiscal 2014 budget to identify areas that were underfunded; identified remedial action to mitigate any projected deficit for 2014; and made recommendations for the budget formulation process intended to prevent future deficits.
For 2013, the firm discovered that the year's budget was the same as that in 2012. The same level of services were maintained, but due to the loss of $328,000 in Federal Education Jobs funding, there was a deficit in teacher salaries.
At the same time, due to lack of funding such as that provided by the one-time stimulus money, there was a deficit in the special-education account to the tune of $1,184,607.
The conclusion reached by Melanson, Heath & Co. was that "from fiscal 2012 through fiscal 2014, the district has had minimum increases in voted appropriations and has covered deficits in special-education accounts from surplus E & D, one-time grants, and surplus in health insurance accounts."
It warned that "by the end of fiscal 2014, there will be no more surpluses in those accounts to continue covering underfunding of special-education costs."
Recommendations to make sure another shortfall crisis did not repeat itself in the future included either "budgets that are adequate to meet the needs of the district," or if the towns "do not provide adequate funding to meet those needs, then cost must be reduced in those areas of the budget that are not legally mandated."
The report also recommended that the district's director of business and finance prepare a report of appropriations voted and expended to date together with projections of costs remaining to complete the fiscal year and present it to the School Committee on a monthly basis along with a status of all other accounts.
In addition, the special-education office "should be providing a spreadsheet of all students who have been placed, together with the contractual commitments for tuitions, special services, and transportation costs," continued the report. "The spreadsheet should be updated every time a new placement is made or revised."
Afterward, the business office should reconcile the spreadsheets to money being spent, encumbered and estimated in his monthly financial reports.
With the submission of the report and a path back to fiscal solvency defined, School Committee members need only address the existing shortfall, which over the last few months has been whittled down to about $1.5 million.
Also at the committee's meeting of March 26:
* Members voted to approve a trio of field trips for 2015, with students jetting off to such locales as Spain, Peru, and Costa Rica. High School Principal Michael Mastrullo said the trips would fit into a new "global schools" initiative wherein the lack of diversity at Groton-Dunstable would be made up for in part with students being "exposed to the world" and earning a "global competency diploma" along the way. Already this year, some high-school students have traveled to China to attend a conference on global leadership.
* Members learned of the impending departure of Assistant Superintendent Kerry Clery, who was hired by the Westford public school system as its next superintendent. According to committee Chairwoman Allison Manugian, Clery will remain at Groton-Dunstable until the end of the fiscal year, which ends June 30, before taking up her new duties.