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Dunstable Rejects Override To Meet District Budget Needs

School Committee To Make Last-Minute Budget Decisions Before June 13 Town Meeting
by Robert Stewart
Efforts to accommodate Dunstable’s financial situation will lower town assessments and keep proposed Fiscal 2021 budget increase to less than three percent.
     The School Committee is likely to approve a reduction in their proposed fiscal 2021 budget that will further reduce the School District’s assessments to the towns of Groton and Dunstable. The vote is scheduled during the June 10 School Committee meeting and just three days before Groton’s Annual Spring Town Meeting convenes on June 13. The last-minute change comes amid a backdrop of negotiations between the School Committee and Dunstable town officials.
     Dunstable’s proposed fiscal 2021 budget is approximately $165,000 short of their revenue projections and officials there have rejected the option of seeking a tax increase through an override of Proposition 21⁄2 to make up the deficit. The Dunstable Select Board has asked the School Committee to lower the assessment to their town by the full $165,000 amount. The Dunstable Finance Advisory Board proposed that the School Committee lower its assessment by $75,000 and that the Town of Dunstable seek to make up the remaining deficit through cuts to municipal budgets.
     Dunstable official’s hard line on the deficit is attributed to recent downward revenue projections as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The School Committee has rejected making up the entire deficit in Dunstable’s proposed fiscal 2021 budget.
     In previous attempts to assist towns meeting their school assessment amounts, the School Committee has taken $800,000 out of their Excess and Deficiency Fund to lower assessments to the towns. If, as expected, the School Committee votes to reduce Dunstable’s assessment by $75,000, the Committee plans to make that reduction through a combination of cutting capital expenses proposed for fiscal 2021 and cuts to the operating budget. Any reductions made for Dunstable results in proportional reductions for Groton as budgetary expenses are split between the two towns based on student population.
     Currently, Groton’s share of school expenses is set at 77 percent and Dunstable’s share is set at 23 percent.
     The Committee identified six different capital items totaling $210,000. Some of the items identified include bleachers and fencing for various sporting fields and a scoreboard for girls soccer and lacrosse fields. Of that $210,000 Groton’s share is $158,754 and Dunstable’s share is $51,246. With that reduction, the School Committee would need to cut an additional $104,505 from the operating budget. The Committee decided to meet that reduction by prepaying out-of- district placements for special education students from surplus funds in this year’s budget.
     By prepaying for these out of district services, the Committee could reduce the fiscal 2021 budget by $104,505. This reduction would result in Dunstable’s assessment being lowered another $23,754 while Groton’s assessment would be lowered another $80,751.
     With reductions in capital expenses and operating budget (For Dunstable $51,246 and $23,754), the School Committee was able to accommodate Dunstable’s Financial Advisory Board request to lower their school assessment by $75,000. Groton’s assessment will be lowered by $239,505 as a result of those reductions.
     With those reductions the School Committee will propose a fiscal 2021 budget to Groton’s Town Meeting that will total $44.3 million that is $314,505 lower than the budget that was certified in April.
     The newly certified budget of $44.3 million is $1.1 million higher than this year’s budget and represents an increase of 2.57 percent. With the proposed changes, Dunstable’s assessment will be $6.8 million and Groton’s assessment will be $23 million.
     School Committee Chair Marlena Gilbert, who at first resisted any further attempts at budget cuts or taking money out of the E & D account, indicated that further reductions should not negatively affect student’s educational plan or any plans for the safety of students as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, she scolded some Dunstable officials for failing to look at some of their accounts to make up the shortfall. She stated, “...The GDRSD FY21 budget growth from FY20 is only 2.57 percent compared to Dunstable’s municipal (budget growth) at four percent. The School Committee voted to use our reserve funds to avoid further cuts to our school budget. Dunstable has that same opportunity. The School Committee is not the authorized body that decides how to fund municipal expenses or what municipal expenses are cut.”
     Gilbert indicated that the School Committee will prepare a handout for Groton’s town meeting on June 13 that will explain the last minute changes.
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