GROTON -- The Groton-Dunstable Regional School Committee got an earful when hundreds of parents and residents filled the performing-arts center at the middle school for a hearing on a budget shortfall officials have said could involve cuts to staff, programs and even closure of buildings.
"I'm not satisfied," said resident Gary Roy following the meeting Thursday. "It looks to me as if the district has overspent and now has to ask for more money."
Although most residents attending the hearing seemed more concerned with cuts in programming and increased class sizes than spending, many still registered complaints that greater scrutiny of the district's finances should have been ongoing by the School Committee.
"We did not do our job, the job you elected us to do," said committee member James Frey, characterizing the committee's performance as having "dropped the ball."
Frey offered his apologies to parents.
"It's hard not to get emotional about the whole thing," said resident Elizabeth Hawes. "The hearing was helpful though because now we understand what caused the shortfall. But I didn't expect to come up with solutions tonight."
"I'm concerned about what cuts might be coming next year," said resident Heather Vandermillen. "I was disappointed that there was no information about next year's budget. But the meeting was very worthwhile anyway. Now we have to decide what can be done to fix the problem.
Like other parents at the meeting, Vandermillen did not want to see teachers lose their jobs, not least because of the air of unreliability it would cast over Groton-Dunstable when others came looking for teaching positions in the district.
At the heart of the issue was a shortfall in the district's budget discovered weeks before that has since forced officials to cut spending and services to make ends meet. So far, they have managed to bring fiscal 2013's share of the shortfall down to zero but subsequent years still present a challenge.
Late last year, the approved school-operating budget for fiscal 2013 stood at $35,200,000, but a review revealed that total obligations by the district came to $36,204,212, a difference of $1,004,000.
Initial cuts were able to eliminate the shortfall for that year, while further efforts including more cuts and new sources of revenue were able to reduce the shortfall for 2014 to $464,485.
As reported at the hearing Thursday, officials continue to chip away at the fiscal 2014 shortfall, but the big question remains in fiscal 2015, when an imbalance of $2.5 million is expected.
"This is a multi-year story," said Frey as he assured parents that for the time being, no more programs or staffing cuts were planned.
Frey added no numbers were yet available for fiscal 15.
The deadline for the School Committee to adopt a final budget for fiscal 2015 is March 5.
One question that recurred during the meeting was the possibility of an override to help pay for the shortfall. School officials did not dismiss the possibility and many in the audience expressed support for one.
The fear however, was that in the past, the town had always been shy of approving such measures.
It was difficult to talk about an override, said one resident, when all people ever hear when there is a money crisis is how teachers will be laid off and the children suffer. Questioning the need for two vice principals at the elementary school, it was suggested that committee members look to the administration for positions to cut.
Frey said all parts of the district have been considered as areas of potential savings.
"What I'm hearing is the need to clarify the role of administrative positions," said committee Chairwoman Allison Manugian after many openly wondered if a number of "central office" jobs were really necessary.
"People were able to vent on a very difficult topic," said Mark Fosberry. "They managed to get the issues across very well."
"I think it was great," said Rebecca Erickson. "It was an open forum where everyone had a chance to get more information about the problem. There could have been more detail on the budget though."
But even as work addressing the shortfall was ongoing, district administrators will also be busy crafting a budget for fiscal 2015.
A public hearing on the subject is scheduled for Feb. 12.