Hancock County loses $3.9M in school funds

Posted Feb. 02, 2010, at 9:25 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:47 a.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — School districts in Hancock County stand to lose about $3.9 million in state subsidies next year based on state aid for education figures the Department of Education released Monday.

The cuts hit all of the town schools and municipal districts in the county; none saw an increase in subsidy for the school year that starts July 1. While the impact is softened because the state is still distributing federal stimulus funds to the schools, the cuts in state subsidy are expected to affect how schools go about the business of educating children.

“It’s not good,” said Robert Webster, superintendent of School Union 76.

Jim Boothby, superintendent at the Regional School Unit 25 in the Bucksport area, agreed that the cuts would have an impact on the district.

“We’re going to have to look for significant savings in how we provide educational programs,” Boothby said.

The figures released Monday reflect the changes in subsidy from those allocated last year and do not reflect the subsequent state budget curtailment that reduced those subsidies for the current school year.

The two RSUs in Hancock County — RSU 24, representing 12 towns in the Ellsworth area, and RSU 25 in the Bucksport area — received the largest amount of subsidies and also took the biggest hits.

RSU 24 will see a reduction of $1,379,178 in the coming year; RSU 24 will lose a total of $1,180,621.

It could have been worse, according to Bill Webster, superintendent for RSU 24.

“This did not come as a surprise,” he said. “In fact, the numbers look moderately better than my initial expectations.”

Bill Webster said the total subsidy for the RSU next year includes approximately $200,000 that the state distributed from penalties assessed against towns and districts that did not consolidate and have not yet complied with the state law requiring school administration reorganization. He pointed out that the subsidy figures still await approval by the Legislature, which also is considering proposed changes to the law, including modifying or abolishing the penalties. Eliminating the penalties would further reduce the RSU subsidy by that $200,000, he said.

On the flip side, the subsidy figures impose the penalties on towns that chose not to consolidate and still remain in noncompliance, in addition to the overall subsidy reductions.

Although the loss of subsidy will have an impact on the district, Webster said, the fact that the schools in the RSU did reorganize will help them weather the loss of funds. The RSU will be able to offset close to half of the subsidy loss with greater efficiencies from district consolidation, he said.

“This is a definite challenge, but we can handle this much better than if we had not consolidated,” Webster said. “There are 15 to 20 teaching positions that will remain in the school over the next couple of years because of savings from district consolidation.”

In RSU 24, the subsidy cut comes in three key areas, according to Superintendent Boothby. Of the total $1,379,178 reduction in subsidy, $260,000 comes in debt service, which is a “pass-through” cost and will not affect school operations. Likewise, the $346,000 reduction in special education funding reflects reduced spending in that area, the result of fewer students and a reduction in off-site placement programs.

However, that still means a $575,000 reduction in general purpose aid for regular education. That is a significant cut, Boothby said, which will be combined with an increase in the minimum amount district taxpayers must raise to receive the reduced subsidy. That will increase the local share by $854,000.

Although the RSU 24 budget process is just getting under way and the initial draft budget does not include any changes in staffing or programs, Boothby said, the double whammy of increased local share and decreased subsidy undoubtedly will affect the budget.

“That’s going to translate into a reduction in staffing,” he said. “We’re really going to have to take a hard look at our delivery models and how we’re providing programs for students.”

Some towns may be able to weather the cuts for the coming year, but, according to Superintendent Bob Webster in School Union 76, there are more cuts to follow in the 2011-12 school year.

Webster said the schools in the union, Brooklin, Sedgwick, Deer Isle and Stonington, have anticipated balances from last year and this year, which can be used to offset the subsidy reduction during the 2010-11 school year.

“Those towns do have carryover balances, and we can draw down those balances to cushion the impact for next year,” he said. “But 2011-12 looks like it will be a difficult time as the federal stimulus dollars dry up.”

Federal stimulus funding has eased the impact of the state’s budget woes, and there has been some discussion that a second stimulus package might be in the offing. Without that federal boost, districts around the state are anticipating additional subsidy cuts in 2011.

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