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$800,000 From E & D Fund Lowers FY21 School Assessments

udget Includes Nearly $400,000 For Remedial Learning Due To School Closures
by Robert Stewart
For the second consecutive year, the School Committee approved using the District’s Excess and Deficiency Fund to cover uncertainties on revenue projections and to keep assessments to Groton and Dunstable at manageable levels. The School Committee approved the use of $800,000 from the E & D Fund which nearly exhausted the Fund’s balance.
     However, the Committee took this action with the understanding that a significant portion of those funds would be replenished through unexpended expenses as a result of school closings the last three months of this school year.
     At their April 22 video conference meeting and during subsequent discussions, the School Committee revisited their certified fiscal 2021 budget including the uncertainty over their original revenue projections which they believed would be negatively impacted by school closings as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
     After this review, the School Committee agreed to use $800,000 from the Excess and Deficiency Fund to lower school assessments to Groton and Dunstable which would help the towns to keep their operating budgets within their respective tax levy limits. The Committee also looked for areas in this year’s budget where savings could be realized and transferred to offset some expenses in the proposed fiscal 2021 budget.
     With these actions, the School Committee was able to reduce Groton’s assessment by more than $600,000 and lower Dunstable’s assessment by nearly $200,000. The new proposed budget for fiscal 2021 totals $44.7 million and is $1.4 million higher than this year’s budget of $43.2 million or a 3.3 percent increase. Groton’s assessment to the Groton-Dunstable District for fiscal 2021 was lowered from $23.8 million to $23.2 million.
     Groton’s new assessment is $709,000 higher than this year’s assessment and reflects a three percent increase. Dunstable’s assessment was lowered from $7 million to $6.8 million. Dunstable’s new assessment is $297,000 higher than this year’s assessment and reflects a 4.5 percent increase.
     The proposed fiscal 2021 budget maintains current staffing levels and does not reduce any educational service levels to students. The budget also includes funding for a new level of service made necessary by school closings as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
     The state is recommending that school districts fund contingency plans to address academic needs of students who may be negatively impacted by the school closings. School Committee Chair Marlena Gilbert noted that the proposed fiscal 2021 budget includes an educational contingency line that will be funded at nearly $400,000.
     Gilbert said the contingency fund will be used for all unexpected educational needs including special education, new enrollments and remedial services due to COVID-19. Gilbert indicated that the funding level for this contingency line may not be enough to cover learning gaps for students who may have regressed during school closings.
     She also noted that the funds are expected to cover any unexpected costs should the District and students face a very different fall school opening.
     Despite steps taken to reduce assessments to Groton and Dunstable, the School Committee is aware that budget approval at the respective town meetings still face some challenges. While the lower school assessments have helped Groton to develop an operating budget for fiscal 2021 with the town’s levy limit,
     Dunstable is still working on a budget deficit. It is estimated that Dunstable’s Fiscal 2021 budget contains a deficit of $160,000. The School Committee believes Dunstable could close the deficit by either using their stabilization fund (which has a low balance of $324,000), cut municipal services or proceed with an override of Proposition 21⁄2 which would result in a tax increase.
     According to Gilbert, there was a consensus among School Committee members that to make any further cuts to school services at this time would be “damaging to our students” because of the unprecedented loss of learning time because of COVID-19.
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