By Hiroko Sato
GROTON -- From economic development to improving voter participation for town meetings, the four candidates vying for a pair of three-year seats on the Board of Selectmen have various ideas and visions for the town.
But they all share one particular goal: Keeping a closer eye on the school budget.
Even though the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District, which serves students from Groton and Dunstable, is independent of town governments, the candidates insist selectmen must increase their oversight over school spending to avoid getting caught off-guard by big funding requests.
They say they learned that lesson the hard way after being hit by the School Committee's request for the two towns to pay $1.9 million in additional funding for the fiscal 2015 school budget -- with $1.4 million of it coming from Groton -- so that it could plug a shortfall partly stemming from accounting errors.
"I'd like to see the School Committee operate less autonomously," said Shane Grant, a construction sales professional and political newcomer from Main Street who is seeking a selectman's seat. He hopes to hear about school spending on a monthly basis "so that we won't have a big surprise at the end of the year."
Incumbent Selectman Anna Eliot, who is seeking a third term, also wants monthly, if not more frequent, meetings between representatives of the boards of selectmen, finance committees and the School Committee as well as town officials from Groton and Dunstable. During these meetings, they should go over the school budget to see if spending is at projected levels or exceeding them, she said.
"(My goal is to) keep the transparency open so that we can all work together," said Eliot, an attorney and Longley Road resident.
Periodic meetings between elected and town officials from both towns and the district are also what incumbent Selectman Peter Cunningham has in mind. Meetings of such a "working group" should help both towns stay on top of student enrollments and other key factors that influence a school budget, he said.
"If you are going to have a major impact on special education (spending), they should know that early in the budget year," said Cunningham, a retired Department of Children and Families supervisor from Smith Street.
Cunningham and Eliot said such working group meetings have helped people work together to solve the school budget shortfall this year, though the gatherings only started in the wake of the district's fiscal crisis. On April 1, Groton voters agreed to finance a new fire station through a debt exclusion so that the town could free up money for the school budget.
On Monday, Dunstable residents will vote on a $200,000 tax override, which is also proposed to help pay for the fiscal 2015 school budget.
Barry Pease, first-time candidate from Island Pond Road, said the school district should first come up with a list of unfunded and under-funded items. Selectmen can collaborate with the district to hammer out short- and long-term plans to achieve goals, said Pease, who is marketing director at for Burkart-Phelan Inc., a Shirley-based musical-instrument company.
"We can work together," Pease said.
School Committee Chairwoman Alison Manugian said she welcomes ongoing reviews and discussions about district needs and spending. Manugian said she plans to ask incoming Superintendent of Schools Kristan Rodriguez to create a working group and invite elected and town officials from Groton and Dunstable to the group's quarterly meetings. Manugian hopes residents stay involved in the discussions as well.
"We'll need to identify, as a whole community, what we want our schools to be and provide and how we want to fund our systems," Manugian wrote in an email to The Sun.
This year's town election features five contested races including the one for selectman.
Political newcomers Jeffrey Kubick of Boston Road and Brian LeBlanc of Integrity Way are seeking a three-year seat on the School Committee while incumbent Water Commissioner James Gmeiner of Longley Road, who is seeking re-election to his three-year seat, will face a challenge from Selectman Joshua Degen of Martins Pond Road.
Bruce Easom, of Martins Pond Road, who serves on the Conservation Commission, and Olin Lathrop, of Sunset Road, are vying for a three-year seat on the Groton Electric Light Commission.
The Trustees of Groton Public Library have four candidates for two three-year seats: Mark Ellis of Saddle Lane, Barbara Lamont of Peabody Street, Jacqueline Viau of Star House Lane and David Zeiler of Old Ayer Road.
The town election will be held on Tuesday, May 20, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Precincts 2 and 3 voters will vote at the new polling location: The Groton Pool and Golf Center at 94 Lovers Lane. The polling location for Precinct 1 remains at Groton Senior Center, 163 West Main St.
Selectmen candidates' priorities are as follows:
* Town Charter review.
* Analysis of long-range financial needs of the town, including school funding.
* Helping the board identify goals and priorities based on financial forecasts.
* Educate the public about initiatives to create new business zones to help bring businesses to Groton.
* Continue to work with the School and Finance committees and School District officials on school budget.
* Maintain public safety and manage other municipal responsibility for quality of life.
* Increase voter participation in Town Meeting.
* Promote full transparency of the town government.
* Work with the School Committee and the School Department to facilitate their budget needs.
* Encouraging a culture of leadership, outreach, transparency and collaboration in Groton.
* Partnering with the School District to improve our education system.
* Creating an environment to promote the growth of commercial office space in town.