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School Committee Approves $44.7 M Budget for FY2021, Following Push-Back on Original Proposal

Total Budget Up 3.3 Percent Over This Year; Groton’s Assessment Up 6 Percent, Dunstable’s Up 7.8 Percent
     At their March 11 meeting, the Groton-Dunstable Regional School Committee approved a $44.7 million budget for fiscal year 2021 (July 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021). The $44.7 million budget includes operating expenses of $44.1 million plus capital expenses and debt service and represents an increase of 3.3 percent over this year’s budget.
     Under the approved budget, Groton’s assessment will be $23.9 million; that is $1.3 million higher than this year’s assessment and represents a six percent increase. Dunstable’s assessment will total a little over $7 million, which is $510,000 higher than this year’s assessment and represents a 7.8 percent increase. Both assessments reflect operating expenses, capital expenses and debt service. The assessments are the amounts that Groton and Dunstable place in their respective town budgets and the money is raised through the property tax. The school assessments contained in the respective town budgets need approval at each town’s annual spring meeting which tentatively are scheduled for May.
[Note: The action follows a public hearing on February 26 where the School Committee got push-back on the then-proposed budget of $41.8 million, a 4% increase over the current year. The budget's staff realignment was criticized by teachers, and a new direction in Special Ed sparked parental concern. The following is an account of that meeting by Groton Herald Senior News Reporter Robert Stewart.]
School Committee Gets Push-Back on Proposed Budget
by Robert Stewart
At a well-attended public hearing on Feb. 26 where the proposed fiscal 2021 Groton- Dunstable School District Operating budget was presented, the School Committee received criticism from several sides questioning the priorities in the budget and raising concerns about the approach to special education in the district.
     School Committee members listened to the criticisms and concerns while, at the same time, grappling with different options to close a $270,000 deficit in the proposed budget.
     The proposed budget as presented to the hearing on Feb. 26 totaled $41.8 million that represents an approximately four percent increase over this year’s budget. While the proposed budget had been scaled back from its original draft (which included all requests from the district’s schools and administration), it was still approximately $270,000 over the guidance budget of $41.6 million which the School Committee gave to the town in its five-year projections.
     One of the key elements in the proposed budget is a shift in staffing resources whereby the school district is proposing to add three or four new teaching positions focusing on special education and on what is called SEL or social-emotional learning. The budget also calls for reduction of approximately four general education teachers due to declining enrollment.
     That latter provision drew sharp criticism from some teachers and the Groton-Dunstable Teachers Association (GDEA) at the public hearing. When the hearing was opened to the public, a teacher from the Florence Roche Elementary School, who was a member of the GDEA, said the budget was shifting funds away from the area that provides direct services to the students in the school district. She also expressed concerns that the proposed budget is redirecting funding away from regular classroom teachers to “academic coaching” and administration.
     Another teacher, who has a child in the school district, characterized the work environment that teachers find themselves in as a “culture of fear.” Using a baseball metaphor she stated, “You’re taking more teachers out of the field and putting more managers in the dugout.” She indicated that more is required of teachers and said that teachers in the classroom are not adequately staffed.
     The School Committee also heard criticism from parents of special education students. One parent said her child went through a disappointing process and raised concern that the focus in the special education is in the wrong area.
     Another parent of a special needs student recounted her experience from several years ago when she requested a neuro- psychologist for her child. She said her experience was so bad that she took her child out of the school district and placed the student in the elementary school in Townsend from the first to the seventh grade.
     While School Committee members listened to comments from attendees at the public hearing, Chair Marlena Gilbert said afterwards that she was heartened by the turnout and hoped that parents and others would remain interested and follow the school budget as it goes to Annual Town Meeting in April. As a follow-up to the public hearing on Feb. 26, the School Committee scheduled another meeting on March 4 to discuss how to reduce expenditures and keep the proposed budget within projections.
     School Committee members directed the Superintendent to find reductions amounting to $270,000 rather than closing the gap by using funds from the District’s Excess and Deficiency Fund (E & D). The Superintendent outlined those reductions at the March 4 meeting that included savings in insurance and adjusting some positions from full-time equivalents to part-time. School Committee members plan to continue budget discussions in the coming week with the goal of approving a proposed fiscal 2021 operating budget by mid-March which will then be presented to voters at Annual Town Meeting in April.
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