GROTON -- Parents concerned over fee hikes for hockey and ski programs at Groton-Dunstable Regional High School were victorious at the School Committee's meeting of Nov. 28 when members voted to take back an earlier decision to increase what is charged to students for their participation in those sports.
"I'm thrilled with the decision," said Eileen Hackney, a parent of two students involved in the ski program. "If we had to pay more, my two children might not have had the opportunity to participate."
Hackney was one of several parents who appeared before the School Committee at the Nov. 28 meeting to question the increases in fees and to request a closer look at the athletic budget to make sure that the numbers relied upon as a basis for the hikes were correct.
Hackney told committee members that if the increases were allowed to stand, they would jeopardize student participation in the two sports and that, for the most part, fees at other area schools were not as high.
"It's not clear that all the alternatives had been explored," concluded Hackney.
The increase in fees from $400 to $600 for hockey and from $300 to $500 for skiing was made by the School Committee in the wake of a report submitted by interim superintendent Anthony Bent and high school principal Michael Mastrullo, which determined that fees charged in the 2012 academic year were not enough to cover the cost of the two programs.
"Revenues from student fees and the Groton-Dunstable budget were insufficient to cover the expenses of the athletic program each year," stated the report. "The problem was compounded by shortfalls in collecting student fees."
According to the report, an accrued imbalance of $144,402 was only corrected after a transfer of funds from the district's general fund. More specifically, for 30 students participating in the hockey program, there was a shortfall of $19,996 and for 30 students in the skiing program, there was a loss of $6,000.
The report concluded that with increased revenue from fees totaling $12,000 and $62,000 from the general fund, the deficits could be solved.
The hockey and skiing programs, said Bent at the Nov. 28 meeting, were "very much in the red" and told parents that he would try to get more funding in the school budget dedicated to sports.
In fact, the report recommended that the district increase funding for its athletic programs in general by $62,000.
"Clearly we have more work to do," admitted chairman Allison Manugian after fellow committee member James Frey suggested that school officials needed to dive deeper into the athletic budget in order to find out exactly where all the money went and if anything could be done to avoid the increases. "We need to have finance discuss this."
"The reason we're in this fix is because otherwise we'd have to go for an override," observed committee member Berta Erickson. "We have to look at the whole pie."
Fellow committee member Leslie Lathrop expressed concern that should money be found in the budget for the two programs, then educational programs such as mathematics might suffer.
"I'm concerned about the balance," said Lathrop.
"This is obviously a very complex issue," agreed Erickson.
Concerned about having raised the fees so late in the fiscal year, Manugian admitted that the whole fee increase situation had amounted to "poor planning on our part."
Agreeing that the increases needed a second look, Frey suggested that school officials "fall back and regroup," offering a motion to "roll back" the increases to the start of the fiscal year and remand the issue to the Budget and Finance sub-committee.
At that point, the rest of the School Committee voted to do just that.
It was suggested that following review by Budget and Finance, a public hearing be held on the issue some time in the spring so that parents and students could have a chance to comment on the findings.
Also at their Nov. 28 meeting, the School Committee:
* Heard from Groton-Dunstable Education Foundation treasurer Lorrie Morgan of the group's latest disbursement of funds to the district totaling $8,959. Funding up to 20 different programs at elementary-, middle- and high-school levels, the annual grant will pay for such programs as Newton in a Nutshell, covering the physical sciences of force and motion for second graders at the Swallow Union school; Music Together for Boutwell preschool students; Fitness for You, engaging students in a personal wellness program using circuit training, kickboxing, yoga and meditation; Podcasting and other Multimedia that will allow high-school students to capture photos and videos for school projects; and Lessons in Developmental Guidance for Florence Roche students covering social competence, compassion/empathy, coping skills and assertiveness. A grant will also pay for copies of the National Audubon New England Field Guide for the Middle School library. "These grants are really small," said committee member John Giger. "But they act as incubators for learning."
* Were introduced to technology integration specialist Audrey Kaplan, who gave a presentation on how high-school students are using computers not only to do virtual class projects that used to require physical cutting and pasting onto poster boards, but also to do schoolwork online anywhere they happen to be. "Ultimately, we're trying to prepare our students for the 21st century," said high school Principal Michael Mastrullo. The principal also said it was the responsibility of school officials to stay current for students and teachers alike and that increased use of technology in the classroom does that.
* Congratulated high school senior Emma Ordeman on being awarded by the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents with a certificate of academic excellence. The Groton resident was nominated for the award by Interim Superintendent Anthony Bent due to her many admirable qualities, including being on the high honor roll, excellence in biology, geometry, algebra, and environmental science at various grade levels, and volunteering as a lacrosse coach, all while holding down two jobs and having perfect attendance during her high-school years. "I had some special teachers over the years," said Ordeman upon receiving the certificate. "They made class fun." Ordeman said she intended to pursue her education at the college level, perhaps in the sciences.