GROTON — State Auditor Diana DiZoglio met with Groton and Dunstable officials Thursday to field concerns mainly regarding the regional school district’s lack of funding.
Accompanied by her office’s Division of Local Mandates and state Rep. Margaret Scarsdale, D-Pepperell, DiZoglio sat down with Select Board members, school leadership and town administration at the Groton Senior Center to share her work and offer a listening ear.
With the visit — part of her office’s AuditTours initiative — DiZoglio intended to connect with community leaders to hear about local issues that may inform future reports.
DiZoglio’s office is currently conducting a performance and safety audit on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which will help “make government work better by identifying any gaps in the system,” DiZoglio said. They also recently released an audit on the Executive Office of Elder Affairs that she said detailed the lack of proper reporting around abuse and neglect cases.
In an effort to improve the lives of Massachusetts residents, DiZoglio said this outreach is integral to making change and ensuring the government serves everyone fairly.
“We audit and investigate different areas of state government based on things that we hear from our local communities, based on what folks bring to our attention as being problematic areas or potentially problematic areas,” DiZoglio said. “That’s why it’s important to come out often to hear from all of you, to get feedback from all of you about what areas of concern you as residents have, you as stakeholders have.”
DiZoglio previously stopped to meet with local officials from Ashby, Townsend and Pepperell for a similar conversation last month. This is DiZoglio’s eighth month in office, having previously served as a state representative and most recently state senator.
The conversation largely centered around the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District’s struggling finances, as they continuously lose out on state aid. That, in turn, means its two towns must cut budgets.
“It’s just really dire,” Scarsdale said. “Did they just forget to count communities under 15,000? The regional school situation is bad, it’s really awful.”
Ben Tafoya from the auditor’s Division of Local Mandates works closely with municipalities to tackle their unique concerns by investigating and analyzing challenges and thereby enabling towns and cities to make informed decisions. With the passage of the Student Opportunity Act, a new financial formula allows some districts to benefit while burdening others with high costs, Tafoya said.
Groton-Dunstable Superintendent Laura Chesson voiced her displeasure for the relatively new legislation. While many districts, including Chesson’s, have seen a decline in enrollment, Groton-Dunstable fails to receive the same funding allotment as Littleton Public Schools, she said. The district also is neither rural nor urban, Chesson said, which means they’re “lost” when it comes to additional help.
As a member of the Massachusetts Association of Regional School Districts board of directors, Chesson said she has “not heard of a regional school district who has had a positive impact from this.”
For fiscal 2022, Groton-Dunstable spent more than 170% of its foundation budget, according to information shared by DiZoglio’s office. In Lunenburg Public Schools, that number was just under 130% for fiscal 2022.
About two-thirds of Dunstable’s $13 million budget funnels into the school district, Town Administrator Jason Silva said, and after a failed $300,000 override, the town reduced its police and fire departments and was forced to make other “real impactful decisions.” The town is unable to accommodate new families in the district simply because “we can’t afford them,” Silva said.
“We had a 7.5% increase this fiscal year. Next fiscal year is looking absolutely brutal, as the superintendent said,” Silva said. “Who the heck knows how we’re going to pay for it at this point? Because I don’t know.”
Groton and Dunstable must also address PFAS contamination at the high school, which is just another cost.
“If we do not get these operational overrides passed, and we have to pay for PFAS on top of that, and we can’t get both towns to come to the plate with the PFAS, we’re going to be talking about a decimation of the school district,” Chesson said. “I’m not overstating that.”
By raising awareness and coming together to identify needs and problems with their local governments, communities across the state can collectively improve persistent issues across the commonwealth, DiZoglio said. She said she aims to facilitate that change through her office.
“(Constituents) come up to me and say, ‘Can we do something about this?’” DiZoglio said, “and my response is, ‘What I can do with my mandate and the mandate of our office is we can shine that big flashlight, produce these reports and then be really, really, really loud standing alongside all of you.’”